By Catherine Jewell, Information and Digital Outreach Division, WIPO
Plastic pollution is one of today’s most pressing global challenges. Every year, we generate more than 450 million metric tons of plastic waste. The damage caused to natural ecosystems is profoundly disturbing. If we don’t change our ways, plastic waste levels are set to triple by 2060. The clean-up will surely be the work of generations. Yet, amid the gloom, there is scope for optimism as innovative companies like the French startup Lactips, develop more sustainable packaging options to help alleviate the problem. Lactips is rethinking plastic. A pioneer in the development of natural protein-based polymers, Lactips offers an eco-friendly alternative to plastic packaging that is fully biodegradable in all environments without leaving any microplastics. WIPO Magazine recently sat down with the company’s CEO, Alexis von Tschammer, to find out more about this intriguing solution. Lactips is one of the seven winners of the WIPO Global Awards 2023.
Tell us about Lactips and its origins?
Marie-Hélène Gramatikoff, a plastics engineer, and Professor Frédéric Prochazka of the University of Saint-Etienne, set up the company in 2014, on the strength of Frédéric’s research, which he patented. Lactips is the only company in the world that can make plastic from a natural polymer – the milk protein casein – and transform it into plastic pellets for industrial use. That’s what’s unique about it. Our technology is a “drop in” solution that plastics manufacturers can use without additional investment. As such, we are opening up new possibilities for businesses to “green” their operations without destabilizing the industry.
We’re very strong advocates of the circular economy, and everything we do is targeted at eliminating plastic waste and pollution and contributing to preserving the planet.
We’re currently transforming Lactips from a start-up to a recognized industrial SME. I joined the company last year to guide and lead this transition. With my strong experience in plastics and paper over 25 years, the Board took me on to develop the company’s industrial profile. We now have a new 4,200 square meter plant, which opened in 2021, and a big R&D center with a well-equipped lab and a team of 50 people.
What are Lactips’ priorities going forward?
There is an increasing global awareness that our planet is suffering from climate change, plastic pollution and biodiversity erosion. Consumers are more and more concerned and want to move away from plastics. Brand owners have engaged with official commitments and objectives to cut the amount of plastics they use by 2025 and 2030.
On top of that, the authorities are taking regulatory action to force change. So the timing is perfect for us. Our plant is ready, our technology is mature, consumers want this, and the planet needs it. The great thing about our solution is that it does not fall under the European Union’s REACH or Single-Use Plastics directives because our product is 100 percent natural.
Our priority at Lactips in the short term is to guide and lead plastic converters (those who manufacture plastic products) and brand owners in their ecological transition towards sustainable solutions, eliminating plastic waste and pollution, with important commercial launches expected by the end of 2023.
How does Lactips’ natural polymer compare with traditional plastics?
Unlike traditional plastics, our innovation is soluble and fully biodegradable in all environments. That is what is so revolutionary and unique about it. It degrades very quickly – at the same speed as organic food – within four to six weeks without releasing any microplastics. When our product reaches rivers or the sea, it dissolves within minutes and completely disappears. Traditional plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade and produce harmful microplastics in the process.
Unlike traditional plastics, our innovation is soluble and fully biodegradable in all environments.
Out of the 460 million tons of plastics produced every year – and that’s going to triple within the next 40 years – less than one percent are truly biodegradable bioplastics, and only 9 percent of all plastics are recycled. Much of the rest goes to landfill or is incinerated.
Our value proposition is on two levels: we’re facilitating and eliminating plastic waste in the existing recycling stream, thanks to the solubility of our product in water, and we’re also eliminating plastic pollution because when our natural polymer enters the environment it breaks down very quickly without any harmful residue.
What are the main use cases for Lactips’ natural biodegradable polymer?
The pellets we produce can be processed in the same way as traditional plastic for injection molding, extrusion, and film, but also as a coating on paper packaging. Our product is ideal for food packaging, more specifically dry foods, (e.g. pet food and confectionary) and for secondary packaging, the overpacking that bundles multiple products together (e.g, the wrapping for the pack of sugar units you buy from your local supermarket).
We’re facilitating and eliminating plastic waste in the existing recycling stream, […] and we’re also eliminating plastic pollution.
We’re also launching our technology to replace the plastic film used in washing detergent pods. And we are exploring ways to provide materials for labels for glass drinks bottles. Glass is expensive and energy-intensive to make, so there’s a lot of interest in re-using bottles. But removing the old labels can be difficult. Our labels offer a great alternative solution.
What’s the size of the global market for biodegradable packaging?
We’re targeting a market of about EUR 1.6 billion, which is huge. Manufacturers are now very keen to move away from plastics, especially for primary and secondary packaging, and they want a natural solution. Our material is natural, seals like plastic, has similar barrier properties (to oxygen, fat and mineral oils) and is transparent. Moreover, when it enters the paper-recycling stream, which uses water, it simply dissolves, enabling the recuperation of 99.7 percent of the paper fibers without any residue. This means we’re also a huge facilitator of recycling.
What role does IP play for Lactips?
IP and innovation are part of our DNA. The foundation of the company is the patent that our co-founder Frédéric Prochazka secured for his university research. Our IP portfolio currently includes seven patent families, which are protected in key markets. Our IP is central to our success, because investors will only invest in your company if they believe you have, first, something very innovative, and second, something that’s very well protected. We rely on the complementarity of our IP rights. Our patents protect our formulations and promising new developments as well as the applications we are targeting. They are the basis of our competitive advantage and enable us to demonstrate the innovative and pioneering nature of our work. They also help us avoid being blocked by major market players in this field.
Our IP is central to our success, because investors will only invest in your company if they believe you have, first, something very innovative, and second, something that’s very well protected.
We have strict confidentiality management procedures in place (including NDAs, MTAs and JDAs) with all our partners and our teams. This approach has enabled Lactips to raise EUR 25 million in funding, placing us among the top five start-ups in the bioplastics field in Europe. And, of course, our registered trademarks help build brand recognition.
How did you go about establishing Lactips’ IP strategy?
Since 2015, we have benefitted from an IP apprenticeship with the National Institute of Industrial Property of France (INPI). In that process, we asked INPI to carry out a patent mapping exercise, which allowed us to identify the technological and competitive landscape we’re operating in. The whole process – plus the expertise of our external counsel Plasseraud – enabled us to implement a robust IP strategy that supports our business goals.
How would you like to see the plastics landscape evolve in the coming years?
We would definitely like to see the transition to the use of natural and sustainable materials speed up. We’re very strong advocates of the circular economy, and everything we do is targeted at eliminating plastic waste and pollution and contributing to preserving the planet.
What key lessons have you learned since taking up your role at Lactips?
Never give up. Patience and perseverance are very important. Everybody is excited about these solutions and wants them, but it takes time to implement disruptive change in the market. Strategic partnerships at all levels of the value chain are critical to moving forward step-by-step towards commercialization. And when, like at Lactips, you’re fortunate to work with passionate people, it’s very important to keep them focused and motivated to reach short-term common targets.
What does it mean to you to be a winner of the WIPO Global Awards 2023 and how is it going to support your business?
It’s really strong recognition of our work, our passion, our engagement and our solutions to preserve nature and our planet.
We are proud that we’re doing something that people, and organization’s like WIPO, recognize as important. The award will give us greater global visibility and will help us reach other areas in the world that are keen on bioplastics and find new customers. It also demonstrates to our investors that we have a robust IP portfolio and a very strong IP strategy.
What are Lactips’ plans for the future?
We are on track to grow this company into a profitable business. We have partnered, and are developing solutions, with strategic brand owners and converters, with full scale ramp-ups scheduled for the end of 2023 and throughout 2024. It is then scheduled to follow our customers globally and expand geographically.
Where does your passion for this sustainable alternative to plastic come from?
As an R&D engineer, I have always been highly interested in plastic technologies and their application. Plastic has revolutionized the packaging market and has many benefits, including its barrier performance for improved food conservation. But plastic creates significant waste and pollution concerns when it is not recycled and when it is disposed of in nature. I am now passionate about developing, producing and commercializing natural solutions that combine the best of both worlds: the mechanical and barrier performance of plastics with the compost-ability and recyclability of alternative natural solutions. Our common success with brand owners and plastic converters is within reach, and the whole Lactips team is very proud of that.