Closing the Loop on Composites Recycling

Composite materials are made by combining fibers with resin and are used to build boats, wind turbine blades, etc. They are strong, light, durable, but up to now not recyclable, and are thus piling up in landfills and incinerators at exponential rates.

In partnership with the Advanced Composite Lab of the EPFL, this startup has developed a sustainable solution to separate the glass fibers from the resin of composites waste and reuse them to make new composites.

No more toxic gases from incineration, no more landfilling, but rather “closing the loop” by reusing these versatile materials again and again.

What inspired you to start your company?

I grew up sailing in the Mediterranean Sea.  I have always been passionate about sailing and have especially loved the idea that it is such a “clean” mode of transportation and way of exploring the world.  We have a 38-foot sailboat today that is at the center of all our family holidays. But when you have a boat of your own, the question arises: What will happen to this boat at the end of its life? I asked around and learned that only some parts of boats are considered recyclable, and the rest (including the hulls) are landfilled – an idea that I found shocking. There had to be a better way!  So when I heard about the pyrolysis process for breaking down synthetic materials, the first question I asked was whether it worked for fiberglass. From the moment I learned that fiberglass was recyclable, right then, the seed for Composite Recycling was planted. The next phase was meeting my partner Pascal Gallo and learning that he has a PhD in Physics and was working with pyrolysis. So with my business and practical perspective and his scientific expertise coming together, in that moment, you could say that the company began to take shape. Mitchell joining us, with a PhD in physics and composite fibers, too, completed the founding team. 

Who would you consider to be a significant influence on you professionally and can you explain why?

Richard Branson has always been an inspiration to me. For one, he says that you do your best work when you are having fun. These past months, I’ve worked as hard as I ever have in my life. But it’s hardly felt like it because I am so thoroughly enjoying the process, and so his words ring so true. Branson also said that for the environment, individuals acting on their own initiative cannot have enough of an impact to change the calculus of climate change, and he said that we can’t wait around for public institutions to solve the problem for us. He says it is up to industry to lead the way, to find solutions and bring them to market on a scale that will actually start to have a significant impact. I think he’s got the right approach, and it’s certainly a guiding principle for us.

What are the current challenges in the Cleantech industry?

I think people tend to have perfectionist tendencies that inhibit innovation. I believe that, just as with software startups, in cleantech we need to employ an “MVP” (Minimum Viable Product) approach, so that we can start deploying solutions as soon as possible and refine them in the marketplace over time.  Scientists, experts, entrepreneurs and financiers are so often looking for a solution that is perfect, and hesitate to get behind something until it is 100%.  Well, I think that’s a shame, and I find it very discouraging when someone brings a bright innovation to the world that’s light years better than anything that exists today—but because it’s not perfect yet, still at the early stages, it is disparaged as being not good enough, or not green enough. But in cleantech, we have a long way to go, and we are only going to get there by making a start, putting one foot in front of the other, and improving continuously as we go – not by waiting on the sidelines and delaying the launch until everything is perfect. As an example for Composite Recycling, our process does emit a little bit of CO2, which we admit is not perfect. But we cannot let that hold us back from launching, because what we offer is so much better and so far beyond any alternative that exists today. We’ll launch and continue to improve as we go forward, not letting perfectionism or unrealistic standards hold us back from pursuing our vision.

What are you most proud of achieving with Composite Recycling?

Being able to bring together an amazing team. I am honored to see that our project attracts such amazing support from the industry and brilliant and inspiring people from inside the industry and beyond. It is thrilling to see my own enthusiasm reflected back from our outstanding team and external partners.

What are your plans for the future, and where do you see Composite Recycling in another 3-4 years?

In concrete terms, we want Composite Recycling to be on a trajectory of healthy, sustainable growth, starting with the successful recycling of boat hulls, and then expanding into other sources of fiberglass waste like wind turbines. More conceptually, we aim to fulfill our mission of providing the missing link and closing the loop on sustainability in the composites industry. We want to deploy the solution that enables everyone to continue to leverage the incredibly practical and versatile benefits of fiberglass.

Was there any piece of advice you received during your involvement with the W.A. de Vigier Foundation that stuck with you? Or a certain meaningful anecdote that you could share about this time?

When I had the opportunity to meet Norah de Vigier,  she stressed how important it was for her that the prize money would help put winning teams in a stronger position when negotiating with investors. And that is exactly what is has done for us: it gave us a solid foundation so we did not have to jump at the first investors that came our way, but had the means to hold out until we found exactly the right partners and were able to negotiate the type of deal that would be the most beneficial for Composite Recycling.

– Thank you, Guillaume!