Metsä Spring, an "innovation arm" of Metsä Group, recently announced its first investment: The construction of a demo plant to test a new technology converting wood-based pulp into fibres used in e.g. clothing. The experts in this field naturally know that wood-based textile fibres have a long history – the most widely used technology today, Viscose, was invented over 100 years ago. However, already over 25 years have passed since the last "upgrade" was introduced to the marketplace, i.e. the Lyocell technology that was first introduced by UK-based Courtaulds in 1990.
The terms 'demo plant' and 'demonstration' imply that our concept is not yet an innovation. Several areas are still significant question marks and thus, quite some de-risking and positive results must be achieved, before I dare to even dream of using the term 'innovation'. On other hand, innovations do not come on a silver platter, they require hard work, luck and, usually, also some risk-taking.
I have been lucky to follow the evolution of the Metsä concept from its very beginning. Hence, in 2009 I was part of the core team, who set up a joint research programme, Future Biorefinery, in which almost twenty Finnish organisations, from universities to large companies, started together developing, among other things, new chemicals that dissolve cellulose. This 5-year programme was later followed up by another joint research programme and in parallel, 2012 onwards, my previous employer Metsä Fibre, also a part of Metsä Group, set up its first internal research project around this new opportunity.
In early 2016, we started to plan trials on a pilot scale using an existing facility in Germany. After the first semi-successful trial later in 2016, my feet (and the feet of the team members) were quickly brought back on the ground. As a consequence, we then started hinting to the top management that if we want to proceed to industrial-scale, we need to take a detour via a demo plant. To my great delight and relief, after some initial digestion of the news, the top management gave this new strategy its full support. In early 2018, we then started to plan a greenfield demo plant. As the risk was significant, we also started to think about co-financiers, and the rest is history.
Importantly, to reach the current phase would not have been possible without a broad partner network and a strong co-creation way-of-working. The list of partners is long. It spans from university groups and research institutes to machine suppliers, co-financiers and companies like Itochu, who completes, together with Metsä Group, the value chain from sustainable Northern forest to global apparel brand owners.