Bio MASH

We create start-ups: from lecturing to starting a business

By Lisbeth Lassen
There is not much room in the white container holding the reactor that makes MASH Biotech's new products, so Jakob Bejbro Andersen stands outside it as he explains how it can convert sludge from sewage treatment plants into useful products for resale. Jakob Bejbro Andersen is in the process of starting up a new company, and his cofounders include Thomas Howard, Associate Professor and Innovation Coordinator at DTU Mechanical Engineering.

From lecturing to starting a business
It is certainly not the first time Jakob Bejbro Andersen has worked with start-ups. He has been teaching about the process of starting up a company from scratch for a number of years. He has done this on the 'Innovation and product development' graduate course, where he and Thomas Howard have set up a creative entrepreneur environment. The course has existed at DTU Mechanical Engineering for around 15 years in various forms, but only five years in its present and highly successful form, which is constantly creating many new companies. Each course concludes with a presentation day ('Spin Out Day'), where leaders from the business community have been invited, to whom the students present their new business ideas.

In 2015 the course had 108 participants, divided into 21 teams. Many teams actually go directly from the course into the innovative entrepreneur environment surrounding competitions such as Green Challenge, Venture Cup, and Danish Tech Challenge. Venture Cup usually receives three finalists from the course, but five teams entered the competition in 2015, all of whom had developed their business idea during the DTU Mechanical Engineering course. The course was originally quite theoretical, but Jakob Bejbro Andersen and Thomas Howard changed this, so that the content now involves 'learning by doing'. Now Jakob Bejbro Andersen has taken the step from helping start up other people's companies, and back to launching his own business.

What can MASH Biotech offer?
When a brand-new company has to find its place in a market already running at full speed, it helps a lot if the company offers something new, such as making a process easier or more optimized for a potential customer, and is able to ensure that there are buyers for the product. The technology in MASH Biotech can convert sludge from sewage water into two useful products—oil and a fertilizer product.

“There are few things that make sludge interesting—energy, and the phosphate and nitrogen nutrients,” explains Jakob Bejbro Andersen. ”The problem with the existing methods is that you either combust the sludge to obtain the energy, but are unable to use the nutrients because phosphor reacts chemically and can no longer be used as fertilizer. Or you spread the sludge on fields, and are then unable to use the energy. The clever thing about our process is that we separate the two elements. The phosphor and nitrogen pass into the biochar, and the energy passes into the oil, so we separate energy and nutrients into two products.”

The team is working to get the oil to meet specific standards, in particular ISO 8217. If the product meets the standard, it can be compared with other goods trading on the market. This means the new company will not be left with a product they have to convince customers to buy, because they are already buying it extensively.

“For example, we have a customer who is already buying 2000 tonnes of oil a month,” explains the new CEO enthusiastically. “We cannot produce that amount right now, but it shows there is enormous potential and that we can already be sure there is a market for our products.”

Recently, it has turned out that the Indian market for unrefined oil is even more attractive for the new company. If the oil is produced locally, MASH Biotech can avoid the substantial duties imposed on imported products, while still being able to sell it to the market price. To verify this potential in India, the team has applied for funding from Innovation Fund Denmark’s InnoBooster fund.

Products AND service
The new company sells not only the oil and biochar products, but also the service of helping wastewater treatment plants reduce their waste volume.

“We actually have two customers,” says Jakob Bejbro Andersen, “the wastewater treatment plants, for whom we reduce their waste volume and upgrade their waste to a product with greater value in the market, and the oil buyers.”

This approach is something he is beginning to seriously specialize in. It is the topic of his PhD, ‘
PSS Support for Maritime Technology Ventures: From exploration to methodology and theory’, which he presented at DTU Mechanical Engineering on 26 November 2015.

“I have my own research into product/service systems and how companies have to support and understand the customer and the processes they go through,” he explains.“MASH Biotech is an example of how you can identify a problem in the customer's operations. In this case we could see that they had to dispose of the sludge. It would therefore be an advantage for them to reduce the quantity, while also converting it into a product with intrinsic value.”

Two products: one for the industry and one for the agricultural sector
The two attractive products MASH Biotech can produce from the sludge are oil and biochar, with very different characteristics, that can be used in the maritime industry and in agriculture.

“The great thing is that we have produced something similar to the bunker oil used in shipping,” says Jakob Bejbro Andersen. "A ship engine can run on oil which is not a highly refined product and is nothing like the petrol we put in our cars. It is quite crude.“Our oil is actually similar to bunker oil, in viscosity, energy content and density. The great thing about our oil is that it is not a particularly refined product, but it is refined enough to be used in ship engines or large industrial boilers,” he explains.

It is thus an oil which can be compared with what is already being used in many places in the industry, and as opposed to bunker fuel, it is simply CO2-neutral and comes from a source that will never run out.

The biochar—MASH Biotech's other product—is currently being tested in India, where the team has partnered with a farmer who uses their product on his fields, and a water treatment plant which supplies sludge to the reactor. Sludge from treatment plants is currently spread directly on fields in India, so the new company's biochar product has a major environmental potential, as the microorganisms normally present in the sludge have been removed.

“We want to also operate in the West, but there are several legislative hurdles here,” says Jakob Bejbro Andersen. In Denmark, farmers are also very critical towards fertilizer products, and are used to pouring over precise specifications for things like nitrogen and phosphor content.

“Entrepreneurial companies always face a number of problems,” says Jakob Bejbro Andersen in closing. “We have to ensure we can actually reduce waste for our customers, and can produce oil and biochar products which are attractive to other customers because they are high quality.”

Contact

Thomas J. Howard
Associate Professor
DTU Mechanical Engineering
+45 45 25 47 41
http://www.mek.dtu.dk/english/Research/Feature_Articles/We-create-start-ups
19 OCTOBER 2018