Sweet success

SEBUS Managing Director Anne Vincent is not surprised when people don’t know what sucrose esters are. She explains, “Sucrose esters are the Holy Grail of the chemical industry because they are user friendly materials, they are non-toxic (some are safe enough to eat), totally biodegradable and they are made from the renewable resources of sugar and vegetable oils. Sucrose Esters have many uses, for example they are superb lubricants, plasticisers and emulsifiers.”

That might not sound too impressive, until you consider that the potential for affordable sucrose ester compounds is vast and almost entirely untapped. The world market for sucrose esters at the moment is estimated at just 4,000 tons per year. If SEBUS can corner just a small percentage of the surfactant/plasticiser market In Europe it expects to have a market of between 20,000 and 50,000 tons per year.

The reason for this huge potential lies in the unique properties of the sucrose ester molecule. Because of these properties, sucrose esters have the potential to be used in a huge range of different industries, most notably in the manufacture of detergents, where they can be used as surfactants in place of the current petroleum-based compounds but also in the manufacture of plastics, where they could be a viable alternative to controversial phthalates.

The key word here is ‘affordable’ because sucrose esters are not new. The original research on their manufacture was done as far back as the late 1950s, and the techniques developed then are still used in their manufacture today. “The drawback is that the current process is very complicated, and requires large amounts of solvents and sugar, and that makes sucrose esters prohibitively expensive to use in anything but premium products,” explains Anne. “Our aim is to reduce the manufacturing costs by something like 75%, which will open a huge market for their use in the manufacture of low cost commodity products.”

Such a huge cost saving would never be easy of course. Anne adds, “SEBUS’ parent company Vincent Processes had been working on the processing problem whenever we had free time. Gradually we built up a database of information, so that when Ken James came to us in 2004 and said ‘I know how to make sucrose esters cheaply’ his idea fell into prepared ground.”

Ken’s whole working life seems to have been pointing towards solving this problem. “Since I went into industry I’ve been concentrating on carbohydrates and specifically sucrose esters – either their synthesis or their application. They are an immensely versatile class of molecules that stretch over a whole spectrum of applications in industry, but until now the price has always restricted their widspread use.”

Ken’s idea was to use microwave technology. The process of manufacturing sucrose esters is very heat sensitive. Ken’s theory was that using microwave technology would give sufficiently precise control over the temperature during processing to manage the reaction effectively.

Together Anne and Ken formed SEBUS to explore the commercial possibilities of the new process. “Without the commercial help from Vincent Processes the project would not have succeeded.” Ken explains, “I’m a scientist, and this needed a lot of scientific input, but it also needed somebody to handle the commercial side – arranging grants, facilities, looking at deals, making the company viable commercially as well as scientifically. Neither of us could have made this work without the other.”

Anne and Ken both have enviable track records in their fields, but the Newbury Enterprise Hub was still able to help them, as Ed Cooper, Hub Director explains, “What the Hub has been able to do is to make a few, hopefully important, interventions to help SEBUS develop. For example, we were able to make Anne aware of the PoCKeT Fund and help put together the application for funding.”

The PoCKeT Fund (Proof of Concept for Knowledge Transfer) is co-financed by SEEDA and the European Social Fund, and managed by FSE. It provides awards from £5,000 to £30,000 to innovative SMEs for research and development with a University or Higher Education Institution at the proof of concept phase of commercialisation.

Anne explains, “PoCKeT wasn’t a vast amount of money, but in terms of seed capital it was really vital. We knew we had to get the early stage development funded because our idea was too blue sky to be funded by debt – we were too far away from market. That also made it uninteresting to Venture Capitalists, who always want an exit strategy. So the resources available for early research were very limited – effectively to what we could get from family and friends, and for publicly available funding it was the PoCKeT Fund or nothing.

“What the PoCKeT Fund did was enable us to get to a point where we’d proven the concept and submitted our patent application. So we are now safe to go outside the business for external resources which is our next step.”

The PoCKeT Fund awarded SEBUS £30,000, repayable if the idea proves to be a success. SEBUS used this money to take its concept to a vital next stage. Working with the Newbury Hub it tracked down microwave technology expertise at Edinburgh University. Ken explains what happened next, “The University of Edinburgh built a specialist microwave oven, to test how to use microwave energy to make the manufacturing process work.”

The PoCKeT money also funded deeper analysis of the product and the process, and that’s where the story took an unexpected turn, as Ken explains. “Once we could control the variables in the microwave we had a huge amount of control over the data. That made new discoveries possible, which are potentially even more exciting. “What we’re looking to do now is to license the technology. That’s not just about the money, because if you are licensing the technology to somebody you have to be sure that they are going to exploit it properly, and that they have the resources and motivation to do that.

“What we are looking for is a combination of a licensing arrangement and an investment in the pipeline of products we have coming up behind the sucrose ester proposition.”

Ed Cooper thinks this is an area where the Hub can help again. “From here we’re looking at a Research and Development Grant. It’s a DTi funded scheme administered by SEEDA. We’ve done a preliminary scoping exercise with SEEDA and that came back positive so we will shortly be making a full application.”

Anne seems pretty relaxed for someone with so much going on, but then, as she remarks, “We are confident about the science now. We know the process will work. We know we can meet our cost targets. This technology is going to fly.”

Author: Ed Cooper

Created Date: 23-08-2006


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