French start-up Pili is pioneering the creation of bio-based pigments with the promise of a palette of unlimited — and lasting — colors. In March 2021, the Toulouse-based company welcomed a second round of funding of €4m, enabling it to embark on industrial production. CEO Jérémie Blache explains to Luxe Packaging Insight why Pili’s solution remains a step ahead of the competition.
What sets Pili apart among other pigment manufacturers?
To better understand what we do, we have to look at what the industry is doing as a whole. Today, dyes and pigments come from raw materials that are either petrochemical or coal-based and are then transformed via processes that are energy-intensive and polluting when it comes to C02 emissions and industrial waste. At Pili, our aim is to replace those processes; it’s less about the final applications and more about changing the raw materials used to make color and the way those materials are transformed. Depending on the products we’re developing, our technology can reduce CO2 emissions by five or ten times, and water consumption by five. There are other indicators of course, but for the sake of simplicity we communicate mainly on C02 emissions.
How does Pili’s technology work?
It’s a two-part process: fermentation and green chemistry. Through fermentation we produce bio-sourced chemical compounds that can already be colored, or not, and then we modify them using green chemistry to produce ranges of dyes and pigments. Fermentation drastically reduces energy use, and therefore C02 emissions, and allows us to work with bio-sourced, and therefore renewable raw materials. These are industry by-products, such as sugar or wood, and one day we hope to work with recycled materials that we can further ‘degrade’.
Fermentation allows us to reduce our environmental impact and the chemistry aspect lets us attain the desired performance: color precision, resistance to light and a rich diversity in the color palette.
How can you obtain color precision using bio-sourced raw materials?
That is where green chemistry comes in. Color performance is closely linked to molecular structure, and the chemical component we can precisely target where we want to go with our colors and pigments. In short, we are replicating the performance of petro-chemical processes, but with a bio-sourced base. The advantage to our approach and what differentiates us from other companies developing bio-sourced dyes is the chemical component of our process.
So is Pili’s color palette unlimited?
Theoretically, there are no color limits. What limits us today is simply that we are a small company of 22 people and our developments are done little by little and product by product.
What product segments are you targeting?
While up to now we’ve communicated extensively on Pili's potential for textiles, we’re continually adapting to the different products that arrive in our portfolio. At the moment we’re gearing up to industrialize a pigment production process targeting paint and inks, which could potentially be a good fit with packaging applications, namely paper or cardboard packs.
And your target clients?
The current priority are paint, ink and plastics suppliers. We also have a product destined for the textile industry in the pipeline that will be ready to test in 2022. We haven’t yet delved into materials like glass, but perhaps in the future.
Pili raised €4m in new funds last month. Where will this investment be allocated?
This latest round of funding will go to industrializing our processes and testing them in as many applications as possible. Our objective is to produce enough pigments and dyes to be able to run tests with our clients on several applications and validate those tests. As our labs are solely dedicated to R&D, we’ll outsource the process. Pili will have to raise another round of funding to build our own manufacturing facilities.
What is your timeline for scaling up production?
By the end of 2021 we will have begun testing dozens of kilos of pigments, and in 2022 the idea is to produce one ton, which will allow us to scale up to industrial levels.
How competitive is today’s bio-based pigment market?
There is a lot of demand for bio-sourced colors with numerous tests underway using plant-based pigments, but the results are inconclusive as the pigments are variable so it’s difficult to replicate colors faithfully. There is also an issue with purity, so the performance in general isn’t exceptional.
Another big obstacle to development is that suppliers aren’t able to handle large volumes as it takes a lot of plants to produce tons of plant-based pigments — that's what makes fermentation particularly interesting.
In biotech, which is the only industrial alternative to petrochemicals, there are several players, but for the moment at least they aren’t integrating chemistry into their techniques, so they are limited by the constraints of the fermentation process.
Our strategy is to take as pragmatic an approach as possible. We don’t want to take a strictly 100% bio-sourced approach; what is most important is to make considerable improvements on what exists today using green chemistry, and better the environmental performance of the different chemical processes. What counts for us, in fine, is the life cycle analysis.