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Rob Suters IP Star NLO
case 15 Jan 2017

Developing the ultimate recycling machine

To survive long-term in space, humankind will have to learn how to develop an artificial ecosystem. To this end, the European Space Agency (ESA) initiated the MELiSSA research programme almost thirty years ago. It soon became clear that the knowledge acquired during the course of this programme could also be applied to make life on Earth more sustainable.

Rob Suters, IPStar co-founder and General Manager, is charged with the task of realising useful – and as profitable as possible – terrestrial applications for technology that will be developed to facilitate travel to Mars. Those applications are often surprising: from mobile sanitation units that also produce water and food to cholesterol-reducing bacteria.

The average temperature on Mars is -60°C, yet Mars is hot. According to Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind car manufacturer Tesla and aerospace company SpaceX, if all goes well, the first manned spaceflight to Mars can depart around 2024. Mars One, a Dutch initiative, already has one hundred potential travellers to Mars, selected from a much bigger number of candidates. The film ‘The Martian’ gives an impression of the lives of settlers on Mars once they have landed safely. Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, needs to find ways to survive after he is left behind on the red planet. He succeeds in this by cultivating potatoes, among other things. What Watney has to invent on site, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been working on for almost thirty years. The MELiSSA consortium, a partnership formed by a number of European research institutes, was officially founded in 1989. The common goal: to facilitate long-term manned space missions by developing an artificial ecosystem.

The opportunities for the MELiSSA technologies are currently huge because of the transition to a circular economy
Rob Suters - IPStar co-founder and General Manager

MELiSSA stands for Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative. What does that mean?

“When MELiSSA was set up, it was assumed that a return trip to Mars would take a thousand days. One of the biggest problems and cost items for long-term manned space missions is related to the quantity of water and food that has to be taken along. The idea was that the solution to that problem would be found in recycling the limited quantity of supplies that can be taken on board. The consortium was set up by a number of scientists that set themselves the goal to develop the ultimate recycling machine, which they call a bio-regenerative life support system. That sounds complicated and it is in fact even more complicated. It involves creating an artificial ecosystem, simulating an incredible amount of biochemical processes in the cycle that maintains life here on Earth.”

How does IPStar relate to MELiSSA?

“IPStar is one of the fourteen partners in the MELiSSA consortium, plus, among others, ESA and a number of European universities. IPStar was set up as a Technology Transfer Office (TTO) from within MELiSSA in 2005, so for the valorisation of all inventions that are created within the framework of MELiSSA. The technology that is developed within the various subprojects is in fact not only suitable for trips to or life on Mars. The problems that have to be resolved in that respect are very similar to a number of environmental issues here on Earth. IPStar was set up by Hans de Swart, who had already made a name for himself as a venture capital investor. I had worked with him in the capacity of legal and commercial consultant and that collaboration was so pleasant that he invited me to become a partner in 2006. Soon afterwards, circumstances forced him to withdraw and I was given the opportunity to take over IPStar from him. The initial intention was to establish IPStar as a classic TTO. However, we have since changed our minds.”

Why?

“The most important reason is that a profit motive is not the priority for a TTO. To my knowledge, there is no TTO in Europe that structurally makes a profit. Embarking on new ventures is a fun challenge, but new ventures are also very expensive, lengthy, energy-intensive paths on which you are continually confronted with negatively inclined people. While we have since found various investors who have joined in at project level, it has been extremely difficult to attract funding for IPStar itself. Investors are excited about what is being developed within MELiSSA in the field of life sciences, cleantech and sustainability. According to them, we are sitting on a gold mine, but as a consortium we are also lacking in focus. We are working on water, food, energy and waste all at the same time and that makes it difficult for investors to assess the value of the technology. I think it is precisely this integral system viewpoint that is needed to make Earth a sustainable environment. The water issues cannot be resolved without examining energy; waste flows cannot be examined without asking whether it is possible to extract valuable raw materials. That holistic vision is at the root of the philosophy within MELiSSA. If you isolate those systems, it simply won’t work any more. What’s more, I believe that precisely this vision also has potential to be commercially successful, provided you take the right approach.”

How should you proceed if a profit motive is not realistic?

“Another reason for abandoning the concept of the classic TTO model was that the limited resources we have only enable us to run a maximum of two intensive projects at the same time. That’s a shame. The opportunities for the MELiSSA technologies are currently huge because of the transition to a circular economy. That is why we decided to take a different approach. We are working on a platform where entrepreneurs, investors, knowledge institutes, governments and the public can come together, to take cognisance, to experiment and to develop activity based on the technologies that can be applied for the transition to a circular economy. That platform is called SEMiLLA, Spanish for seed. The symbol for the recycling cycle. SEMiLLA is essentially an investment fund with huge potential and that is really starting to take off now.”

In which ways is this evident?

“The momentum for initiatives of this kind is now very strongly present. It has become socially acceptable to speak of sustainability and there are many companies and investors that focus on this. They see it as an opportunity, and I think that’s great. Let’s go back to the core of the MELiSSA programme: it is considered the most advanced initiative for developing a closed life support system for space travel. This means that we are becoming more recognised as a knowledge centre for applying the underlying technologies on Earth. Once that happens, you can forge ahead. We are frequently approached by organisations that want to do ‘something’ in the area of circular economy and there are increasingly more opportunities within our network to join us in projects.”

What kind of projects?

“Together with other parties, including engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV, Kossman De Jong and Mecanoo architects, we are involved in the Foundation Eden Soestdijk project, for example. The aim is to develop Soestdijk Palace and surrounding country estate into an educational, scientific-cultural centre where visitors learn about a sustainable society and are encouraged to contribute to achieving this. On governmental invitation, a total of 120 proposals have been made for giving Soestdijk Palace a new designation. In the meantime, we are one of the three remaining initiative takers that have been given the opportunity to make a bid to acquire the country estate in 2017. Our plans involve building a bio-dome on the country estate, a large greenhouse with, among other things, a tropical rain forest – inspired by Eden Cornwall – and a Mars habitat, and experimenting with state-of-the-art methods for producing food as well as waste and water management. It should be a place where visitors can experience what it is really like to live in a circular society in a positive way; we have to get rid of the negative approach whereby we tell people what not to do if they want to preserve the Earth. For instance, there will be a restaurant where the food will be prepared according to the circular principles, but then at star level. So, no bowls of semolina with green algae on the menu, but dishes from first-class chefs that work with the ingredients produced at Eden Soestdijk.”

That is interesting for the Eden Soestdijk initiative takers and for the public, but what about companies and investors?

“For us it is indeed a beautiful location to demonstrate – to people for whom the term circular economy is still reasonably abstract – what we can do. That is a great deal; in fact, we can already close all those cycles. The only real challenge remaining is the production of food, which still requires an unbelievable amount of energy and water. In 2050, there will be 9 billion people on Earth, 60 percent of which will be living in apartment complexes and mega cities. All of those people will have to eat and go to the loo. How are we going to facilitate that? If we don’t start thinking about this now and create awareness, we are going to have an extremely big problem later on. However, one of the functions of the SEMiLLA platform is very emphatically to stimulate activity around all of these technologies. Eden Soestdijk embraces the principles of open innovation; we are open to all kinds of parties that want to participate in this. I am convinced that you eventually need the entrepreneurship of people who really want to put in the energy to bring everything to a successful conclusion.”

We are becoming more recognised as a knowledge centre for applying the underlying technologies on Earth
Rob Suters - IPStar co-founder and General Manager

So SEMiLLA is a platform to demonstrate all the possibilities; can you already name specific applications developed by MELiSSA technology?

“We recently initiated the SEMiLLA Sanitation Hubs project in which we are developing a mobile sanitation unit that is intended for use in areas where there is no hygienic sanitation facility or on sites that have been struck by disaster. A lack of sanitation is an important cause of child mortality. In many cases, the collapse of infrastructure after a disaster causes more victims than the disaster itself, because, for example, diseases can run rampant. We are working on the development of a container in which a few hundred people can use the toilet safely and that has a facility for producing water and nutrients underneath. These are then guided to a second container where superfoods are cultivated; for example, spirulina, which is an algae species brimming with essential nutrients. A SEMiLLA container therefore provides a safe place to use the toilet and supplies guaranteed clean and safe drinking water as well as nutrients in a subsequent stage. The related technology is mainly provided by the University of Ghent, a MELiSSA partner with which we work very closely.”

The company name may well be an indication, but which role do IP rights play in your activities?

“IP is an essential part of our business model. In theory, we exploit IP. I try to develop designs and contracts that will earn us money based on the inventions created within the MELiSSA projects. It is extremely important that we tread cautiously; before you know it, you are no longer entitled to claim protection. If inventions are interesting enough for valorisation, the IP position will be the first topic on the agenda. We have made very clear contractual agreements that scientists involved first present their findings to IPStar before they publish them. Naturally, scientists are keen to publish and their work is often judged on this, so this is definitely a source of tension.”

The IP position will be the first topic on the agenda
Rob Suters - IPStar co-founder and General Manager

Consortium partners that are involved in MELiSSA projects also conduct research that does not fall under MELiSSA and are part of a university or research institute with their own TTO. Is it not difficult to define when inventions belong to IPStar and when they do not?

“That is not difficult on paper, but it can be in practice. Inventions that are created within projects that are co-funded by ESA and to which a MELiSSA sticker can be applied, belong to our consortium. In that context, it is IPStar’s responsibility to arrange the IP protection and any valorisation of those inventions. However, there are, of course, always grey areas. In some cases it is not always clear within which framework inventions have been created, so we have to be flexible in that regard.”

What does IPStar’s IP portfolio look like?

“It is extremely varied. We have devoted a lot of time to identifying what has been produced over the past 26 years. That was a huge job, but we now have a catalogue of MELiSSA technologies. We determine our IP strategy per technology domain. We do this depending on the related commercial opportunities. We only address the need to apply for patent protection when we elect to exploit a specific technology. Furthermore, we are stilling looking into whether we can also protect the holistic approach of MELiSSA for a bio-generative life support system.”