This article is part of a blog series introducing the startup teams of the EIT Food Accelerator Network Helsinki 2022 programme.
Montinutra produces high-value bioactive products from forest industry side streams. The company’s mission is to convert and upcycle forest industry residual flows into valuable ingredients for the cosmetics, food & beverage, and chemical industries with scalable technology. Montinutra has a strong research and innovation background and a solid patent portfolio in key markets globally.
The chemical-free extraction process creates high-value bioactive compounds from low-value forest industry side streams
Sawmills produce millions of tons of sawdust and bark globally. The current commercial value of these side streams is low. Montinutra, on the other hand, can add significant value by extracting high-value bioactive compounds from those low-value side streams. Sawdust and bark are usually incinerated in power plants, and the economic value-add remains low, in addition to which, the burning process causes greenhouse gas emissions.
Along with the transformation of the traditional forest industry related to declining demand for paper Globally and the endeavours to replace fossil raw materials with renewable materials, the interest in the separation of main constituents of wood – cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose, and other chemical compounds – has geared up in universities and forest industry companies.
Montinutra’s extraction process, pressurised hot water extraction (often referred as PHWE), has been known for decades. Montinutra takes pride in the pure, chemical-free extraction process, using water as the only solvent. At pressure and elevated temperature, water-soluble components can be removed from the sawdust. The end of Montinutra’s production process consists of the steps of further influencing product properties without chemical modification and removing water from the product partially – or entirely, if needed.
Montinutra’s proprietary process is not wood species-specific in itself – in fact, any lignocellulosic biomass can be suitable for extraction. This allows for industrial scalability and operation anywhere in the Globe where forest industry by-products are generated. Initially, Norway spruce was selected because of scientific research findings and good availability. On the other hand, when changing the wood species or plant, the different compositions of the extraction must be considered.
Collaboration – the key to making wood to food a reality
Montinutra’s focus is currently on application development and commercialisation of Sprucegum™ extract. There is a wide variety of academic research on the stabilising effect of using wood hemicelluloses in diverse end uses, including food sciences. To discover the potential of Sprucegum™ and to test the traction in the food domain, Montinutra decided to apply for the European Institute of Technology’s EIT Food Accelerator Network.
In the Global food system, wood-based ingredients may have vast untapped capacity to contribute to locally, sustainably and responsibly sourced natural gums or to reduce the toxic biocides in crop production, among others. Thanks to this compelling offering, Montinutra was selected for the EIT FAN Helsinki cohort in spring 2022.
To Montinutra, the target for the program is clear: to identify or design potential applications and to establish product fit in collaboration with major industry players and researchers. Collaboration, after all, is the only way to make wood to food a reality. The participation has already generated interest, pilots and contact requests through matchmaking.
The approval process for novel food ingredients is heavy, but the road ahead looks promising
Besides the food domain, various product applications are being discussed with several cosmetics and chemical companies. Sprucegum™ is a relevant ingredient due to its naturalness and origin outside the food chain. The extract can replace synthetic emulsifiers, among others. Product launches are expected, but the companies’ internal product development processes and commercialisation cycles tend to take time.
In addition, the food & beverage and pharmaceutical industries operating environments are governed by strong regulations. Sprucegum™ must be approved as a novel food ingredient, a process that can take years and cost up to six-figure-sum. Nevertheless, no indications of safety risks have been discovered in the scientific studies or in Montinutra’s own toxicological analyses, so the starting point for regulatory processes is good.
In 2021, Montinutra launched a pilot-scale plant in the laboratory of Valio’s former dairy production unit in Turku. The pilot production has the capacity to produce sample batches and start commercial production. The pilot plant’s quick ramp-up and effortless commissioning have proven that Montinutra’s production process is efficient, risk-free, and scalable. The next step is investing in commercial-scale production, which requires securing market potential and financing. From the sawdust procurement point of view, the best location for a commercial production plant would be Metsä Group’s production plant.
Montinutra is owned by angel investors and Metsä Spring, a corporate venture capital arm of Metsä Group. Sprucegum™ has its roots in the 2010’s FuBio projects, where technologies and applications were extensively developed. However, there is a long way to go from innovation to the market, and Montinutra’s strengths lie in the development of a cost-effective manufacturing process, product development and commercialisation of products.
Written by Antti Kämäräinen, Market Development Director at Montinutra