Ghent-based start-up AmphiStar is one of the first in the world to produce biosurfactants using a yeast that derives its nutrients entirely from biological waste streams. ‘We want to make the surfactant market more sustainable and its products safer.’

Surfactant is an acronym for SURFace ACTive AgeNT. ‘They have a dual property’, begins Sophie Roelants, co-founder and former CEO, now COO of AmphiStar. ‘One part dissolves well in water, the other part in fat. The detergent that you use to wash a pan, for example, contains surface-active agents. These are essential for proper washing. They are found in a wide range of products, from cosmetics and shampoo to animal feed and agricultural chemicals.’

Industry produces more than 20 million tonnes of surfactants every year. ‘The vast majority of this is derived from fossil fuels’, says Roelants. ‘In addition, a significant amount comes from palm oil, which requires valuable agricultural land. The raw materials are then subjected to a classic chemical process at high temperature and pressure with toxic catalysts. All in all, the surfactant industry today is far from being sustainable and environmentally friendly.’

Industrious

The Ghent start-up wants to help change that. According to Roelants, this is possible thanks to the three ways in which they have made the process of producing surfactants organic. First, they use organic waste streams to produce the surfactants. ‘We get the food waste from supermarkets and food processing companies, among others’, Roelants explains. ‘Then we pre-treat it, both physically and enzymatically. This gives us a kind of soup, which we then transfer to the fermentation vessel.’

It is in this fermentation vessel that the biological synthesis process itself begins. ‘Our yeast, Starmerella bombicola, is very industrious. It is naturally very good at making biosurfactants. But genetic modification allows us to make many more variants: acetylated or non-acetylated, fully water-soluble or very fat-soluble, foaming or non-foaming, you name it. We have something for everyone.’

The end result shows the third way in which AmphiStar works organically. Roelants: ’In the past, surfactants have sometimes been discredited because of eutrophication [too many nutrients that can disrupt an ecosystem, ed.] or because they have been found to be carcinogenic. Our products are fully biodegradable and proven to be non-toxic and non-carcinogenic.’

Limited edition product

AmphiStar’s technology originated about 15 years ago at Ghent University, Roelants explains. ‘At the time, Ecover, a producer of organic detergents and cleaners, wanted to develop organic cross-linking agents. They came to us because we already had a lot of expertise in organic production with yeast.’

After a few years, the project led to the establishment of the Bio Base Europe pilot plant, an independent scale-up facility in the port of Ghent. ‘This was where we could continue to test, produce and scale up our genetically modified organisms.’ In July 2021, Roelants and her colleagues, Karolien Maes and Bernd Everaert, decided to bring all of this together in a single company: AmphiStar.

As is always the case with start-ups, developing the production platform was not without its difficulties, and the industry did not make it easy for them either. ‘For a long time we were told: it’s all way too expensive, it’s not going to happen. But recently, there has been a real change of attitude.’

Ecover has been a big help, Roelants says. ‘Last year, the company launched a limited-edition floor and toilet cleaner containing our biosurfactants. According to them, our product works even better than the market reference. And, of course, it really is much more sustainable. In addition to Ecover, other big names in the cosmetics world are now interested in working with us.’

Going mainstream

Investors are also starting to see the potential of biosurfactants. In April this year, for example, Roelants and her team were delighted to be awarded €6 million from sources including the European Circular Bioeconomy Fund (ECBF). ‘A large part of this will go into research and development. We want to further optimise the production process. Think about adjusting the stirring or the feed rate of the raw materials so that the yeast cells can do their job even better.’

Once all this is in place, AmphiStar hopes to take a big scale-up step. ‘At the moment we are still producing at the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant. But within 2.5 years we want to have our own production plant capable of producing 1,000 tonnes of active material per year. For that, we need to raise more money. Roelants and her colleagues have high ambitions for the future. ‘Our mission is to make biosurfactants mainstream. This will make the market more sustainable and its products much safer.’

Founding Team Amphistar

Founding Team Amphistar, with Sophie Roelants on the right.

Beeld: AmphiStar

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