Michail Kyriazopoulos - “Finding employees who share our passion was vitally important to us”
“Throughout this entire process, we are gaining so much new experience every day that we are constantly growing as people and professionals – regardless of success or failure,” explains Michail Kyriazopoulos, founder of NaturLoop. The start-up is making sustainable and inexpensive construction materials from the harvest residues of coconut production.
Mr Kyriazopoulos, what’s the business idea behind your start-up?
We manufacture sustainable and attractively priced fibreboards from coconut shell fibres. This is then turned into furniture and wall and ceiling panelling. Our main market for Cocoboard® will be the Philippines, but Europe could also be of interest.
How did this come about?
Over half of the planet’s rainforests have been destroyed since the 1960s. One of the measures taken to protect the remaining natural resources is the imposition of bans on deforestation. The limited availability of wood is not only causing prices to rise, but is also making lots of countries heavily dependent on the import of wood materials. This is a huge issue in the Philippines. The country is made up of over 7,000 islands. However, Indonesia, the Philippines and India meet over 75% of global demand for coconuts. This produces 21 million tonnes of coconut shells a year in total – five million in the Philippines alone. Most of them are incinerated or disposed of, which represents a huge waste of natural resources.
How did you become aware of the issue?
In 2014, the Hilti Foundation, a charitable organisation, approached the Institute for Materials and Wood Technology (IWH) at Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH) about the feasibility of making inexpensive and sustainable building materials from this waste product. I was completing my Master in Wood Technology there at the time. I became aware of the project by chance.
How was the problem resolved?
The coconut shell fibres are pulverized and then heated up and pressed to make Cocoboard®. A natural adhesive developed at BFH is also added. This binds and strengthens the material while also reducing energy consumption on the pressing and heating processes. This tannin-based adhesive is obtained from wood using simple hot water extraction. In contrast to conventional adhesives, it does not contain any formaldehyde that’s harmful to health. Cocoboard® has mechanical and physical properties comparable with those of medium-density fibreboard (MDF).
How did a business idea emerge that led to the foundation of NaturLoop in 2018?
The key factor was not primarily economic considerations, but the fact that such boards are actually used in the Philippines – in other words, they meet a significant requirement. Initially, we were unable to find private investors to develop the products. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without funding from Innosuisse and the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Did you often have doubts?
Yes, constantly – that’s all part and parcel of it. There are many challenges for a start-up to overcome. The products have to be developed in the laboratory. Then comes the really big step of taking them from the laboratory to market-launch stage. That takes a great deal of expertise, money and perseverance.
What’s the best way to overcome doubts?
Having a strong team in the start-up and good advisers around you. This ensures you are well prepared for difficult decisions.
What support was particularly important during the start-up phase?
Not only did Innosuisse provide us with financial support, but also extremely insightful advice on technical, financial and business issues. Venturelab’s seminars are also very useful. They explain the best way to secure investors for your project. Moreover, BFH provided the most valuable support. The high-quality infrastructure at BFH’s laboratory was and is of great benefit to us. We also benefit tremendously from the technical expertise of BFH staff. The university was also very obliging when it came to transferring the patent to NaturLoop.
What appeals to you in particular about your role as a start-up founder?
It’s obviously very rewarding when the results from the laboratory stage can finally be produced and sold. However, throughout this entire process, we are gaining so much experience and learning so many new things every day that we are constantly growing as people and professionals – regardless of success or failure. I find that equally fascinating.
What should people setting up their own companies pay particular attention to?
Finding employees who share our passion and motivation for the project was vitally important for me and my co-founder, Daniel Dinizo. That’s not easy, but is absolutely crucial. We currently have a five-strong team. In addition to the work on your own company, it is also very important to always keep up to speed with the latest technical and business trends and innovations.
What are your hopes for the future?
That everything works out as planned. We’re currently carrying out a series of industrial trials to finalise the production technology. In 2022, we aim to secure the procurement of raw materials and define the relevant logistical processes on site. By the end of 2022, we hope to begin operations at our first production plant in the Philippines. We estimate an annual production volume of 30,000 m3 and annual revenues of 12 to 15 million Swiss francs. We plan to set up further production plants long-term. Then again, above all else at the moment, I hope the extraordinary situation caused by the pandemic finally comes to an end and we can return to normal everyday life. At least being able to travel and fly again which is very important for our start-up.