Nature’s Principles: sustainable lactic acid production

At Nature's Principles, they pioneer the circular production of biobased chemicals by using unique fermentation technologies. The Dutch start-up, that recently became a Planet member, is using open mixed culture biochemical production processes, utilizing unrefined and “waste” streams, with a low-cost, low-maintenance, easy-to-operate, highly scalable method, which can produce valuable chemicals such as lactic acid.

We had a chat with Jan Pieter Van Tilburg, CEO of Nature’s Principles, to learn more about the company and in which ways he expects to benefit from the Planet membership. 


Can you tell us a bit about Nature’s Principles and what you do?
Nature’s Principles started as an innovative PhD project at Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. The lab experiments proved great results using mixed culture fermentation, which used ‘Principles of Nature’ to make the microorganisms satisfied and productive, as opposed to genetically engineering them in a lab. The result was a unique innovative production process that produces lactic acid in high yields via open culture fermentation, with the smallest ecological impact yet.

Jan Pieter Van Tilburg

What is the key driver for Nature’s Principles?
We are an impact company and are strongly committed to contribute to the European goals for becoming more sustainable and circular. We want to have a positive impact on the economy. We do this by developing and implementing fermentation-based production technologies that would replace fossil chemicals and create improvement in terms of emitted CO2, water and arable land usage. Also local production is something that is very important to us.

Can you tell us more about the process and your (by-)product(s)?
Current fermentation technologies need pure sugar to start the fermentation process. Nature’s Principles process starts from locally produced sugar beets, which means that upstream steps of the production process are skipped. Moreover sugar beet, compared to sugar cane, requires less water for irrigation as well as less land usage.

In our process we use a more natural and robust fermentation. This means that we have the choice to select a wide variety of feedstock, instead of relying only on refined crystal sugar.

Directly produced by our patented open culture fermentation, we supply a unique blend of organic acids consisting of lactic acid together with other organic acids. Lactic acid has many applications, but we see a huge potential in acidifying fertilizers, specifically manure in the Netherlands. It can promote nutrient availability, help control unwanted fungi, yeast and other bacteria, improve soil health and directly promote plant growth. Moreover, by adding our lactic acid to manure and using it as fertilizer, we make the process circular and reduce nitrogen and CO2 emissions relative to chemical fertilizers.

Research & Development

How far are you in your technology development?
We are currently in the midst of testing a larger scale production in a pilot project in Balk, Friesland. In January we finished our first pilot run, which proved that our patented technology brings the expected results on pilot scale. We are now in the fifth batch. Moreover, we are creating samples out of it and also actually selling some product already, which gives us a bit of validation on the price.

The next step following the pilot in Balk will be to build a demo facility for our technology in Rotterdam. We are fundraising for this demo phase, which will have to validate the fermentation process at a 100x larger scale, similarly to the commercial size. We want to build the core technology equipment to prove that the technology works on a commercial scale so that we are prepared for the commercial plant right after.

Who are your main competitors and how do you differ from them?
The traditional lactic acid producers have more scale, but they do not focus on soil fertilizer applications, so we don’t see them as direct competitors. Producers of citric acid, which is currently used to acidify some types of fertilizers, are our competitors in some applications. Lactic acid helps control unwanted fungi far better than citric acid (produced by fungi) does.

Planet membership

In which ways do you expect to benefit from the Planet membership?
Being part of the Planet community is very valuable to us. There are many things that we have already figured out that other community members haven't and vice versa. To be able to learn from and share with other biotech startups will help us to develop Nature’s Principles further.

Next steps

What will Nature’s Principles look like five years from now?
In five years we want to have our first commercial plant running in a profitable way. This includes one to two years of demo and two years of construction of the plant. During these two years, we will already be ramping up the production, so that in five years we will have the full production running.

We need to show to our investors that, in a short time horizon, we can build the plant, we can be profitable and we can return the investment.