It often happens that breakthrough technologies emerge at the nexus of several scientific areas. The story of Biomicrogels Group is one brilliant example. It is a science experiment turned international company that helps any person in the world to contribute to solving the global problem of fresh-water shortage and greenhouse gas emissions.
“The impossible missions are the only ones which succeed” (Jacques Cousteau)
In 2012, postgraduate student Andrei Yelagin had an encounter that changed everything. He met doctoral student of biotechnology Maxim Mironov who was working on safe polysaccharide microgel coating for targeted release of drugs inside a human body. Andrei came up with a bold idea of transferring this method from medicine to industrial production. And he didn’t go wrong.
“It turned out that natural biopolymers have applications beyond medicine and pharmaceuticals. They can be effective in water purification and removing any types of oils, fats, oil products and complex impurities from hard surfaces. Many thought this idea was infeasible and unsustainable but we tried and succeeded,” Andrei Yelagin says.
Using biopolymers in new areas became possible thanks to developing a new sourcing technology and using common and widely available agricultural waste – specifically, sugar beet press cakes, pomace and sunflower heads.
Young scientists Andrei Yelagin and Maxim Mironov and their team of engineers, founders of Biomicrogels Group, not only were the first in the world to transfer the principle of micro-encapsulation from medicine to industrial production; they came up with ways to make the technology cheaper. This is how Biomicrogels® came about that purify up to 10 times more effectively and economically than similar solutions, while also providing cost-effective and eco-friendly purification.
As they come in contact with lubricants (mineral and vegetable oils, fats and oil products), Biomicrogels® encapsulate them and the microcapsules merge. In this new form, oil can be easily separated from water. Subsequently, both oil and purified water can be returned to the process cycle, which makes them recyclable materials. The biopolymers themselves are fully bio-degradable: they decompose to 98% after 24 hours of use and fully decompose within three days. The Biomicrogel® technology helps reduce CO2 emissions as the production process is CO2-neutral and the technology does not require energy-consuming actions or heating.
The idea of commercializing a promising technology may have not been off to such a great start with other project leaders. The path of constant learning led Andrei from his first baby steps as an entrepreneur, when he was selling electronic components of out-of-order equipment, hand-picked berries, mushrooms and even willow branches on Willow Sunday (Palm Sunday in Russia), solving math problems and washing cars for money, through years of physical training and research to the peaks of international business. His career as a professional athlete taught him that, by giving it 100% every day, day after day, and by doing the best you can do, despite any circumstances, mistakes and defeats, discarding laziness and doubts that everybody gives in to every once in a while, sooner or later you will become a champion.
“Entrepreneurship is like sports: athletes work hard to improve and beat their competitors. I do the same to beat my business rivals,” Andrei Yelagin shares.
Research was Andrei’s another important and long-term activity, in addition to sports. Andrei holds a Ph.D. in engineering and is the author of over 40 research articles and patents. Science taught him critical thinking and multifaceted approach to solving problems, but most importantly, it gave him an understanding that in order to move forward, one should never be afraid of making new hypotheses and experiments, and at the same time should constantly observe and capture random events that do not fit in standard trends. Because it is known that just like in science, in business promising discoveries sometimes happen accidentally. Some people notice them and some do not.
At home among strangers, or Think big, act locally
“Usually, everyone wants to first come far in Russia, and only then enter international markets. We created products and solutions keeping in mind that they would be popular globally, because tasks that this technology would help accomplish are relevant for the entire world, and raw materials for our products – secondary products and agricultural waste from fruit and vegetable processing – are available almost in all parts of the planet,” Andrei Yelagin, CEO of Biomicrogels Group, says.
With the next 20 years of business development in mind, the team started with analyzing and detecting target markets for protecting the technology with patents and creating prototypes that were presented to real companies on the market, and then improved every time after receiving feedback.
For instance, when testing one of the hypotheses, we created a prototype of a technology to clean up oil spills at sea and showed it to a Gazprom Neft affiliate. After making an appointment with their leadership, we came to their office, filled a container with water, added a test tube of oil and showed how our technology worked at a particular example. Nobody was counting on signing a contract then, we only wanted to receive feedback from professionals about our prototypes, and see what solutions and products could be developed from them and why it would be valuable for them as our potential client. In fact, we tried to involve the client in the development of products to solve a relevant and important task. So they were much more willing to communicate and share information than if we approached them via a tender or a cold sale,” Andrei Yelagin recalls.
The company received its first international patents in 2014. Biomicrogels Group was then nominated to the Falling Walls Venture competition where it was listed among the top 30 most promising technological startups in the world. A company was later registered in the United Kingdom to implement international projects in 2015.
The company then began exports to the US, Brazil, Australia, Latvia, the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan. Thus, pilot batches were delivered to all continents except Africa and the Antarctic. In the year before the pandemic, the company had partners in 11 countries that received pilot products. The Biomicrogels® technology is currently proved and protected by over 100 patents in 62 countries, including Russia, Europe, the US, Canada and the Persian Gulf countries.
Later, in 2019, the company launched a consumer line under the brand WONDER LAB® — eco-friendly detergents and cosmetics based on the Biomicrogels® technology represented by a range of products for children, products for laundry, cosmetics (shower gel and liquid soap) and cleaning products for pet owners. In the same year, WONDER LAB® made Russia’s top ten best new brands according to Forbes, and in 2021, it became Russia’s only manufacturer in its product category to receive EU Ecolabel. Today, the brand products are sold in all major retail chains across Russia as well as on online platforms.
COVID-19 as catalyst for international expansion
In the first few years, Biomicrogels Group was developing with the help of finances from the founders as well as through financial business support instruments. Initial investments in the company were made in 2018, and in 2021, Biomicrogels Group received substantial finances of nearly $13 mio for international business development from foreign investor Gregory Berenstein. Today, Biomicrogels Group comprises four chemical laboratories, two production facilities and over 120 employees, operating in five countries.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the coronavirus pandemic has allowed the company to boost its exports: in 2020-2021, it opened representative offices in its target regions – Europe and Southeast Asia, and put together local teams which included Malaysian and Indonesian technology specialists with long-term experience gained at major enterprises operating in the target industry. This resulted in industrial product exports increasing by 30%, which was largely facilitated by a proper business transformation, with due regard of the pandemic realities.
Contextual and targeted advertising helps the company attract new customers. Work is underway to improve search engine optimization and engage in content marketing through creating and distributing expert content on specific complex tasks and their solutions, as well as on the industry in general and one’s place in it.
The company’s efforts to build trust with foreign clients have been boosted by International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), international company auditing, and confirmation of the characteristics of offered products and solutions by the international expert technology and innovation consultancy Isle Utilities, which has acknowledged Biomicrogels® extra efficiency, full biodegradation, compliance with principles of green chemistry and economic effectiveness, as well as their unique properties. The strategy seems to have paid off: in the last quarter of 2021, the company’s revenue grew over 4.5-fold as compared to the similar period in 2020.
Last year, an international commission nominated the company to present its technology as a response to global challenges, such as the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and fresh water scarcity, during the G20 summit in Sorrento, Italy, in October 2021. G20 members, global experts and investors acknowledged Biomicrogels Group’s high-tech solutions as the best in the Cleantech category and included them in the top ten technology solutions featured in White Book G20 Innovation League.
In 2021, former President and Country Manager of the international engineering company GEA and Board Member of German-Russian Chamber of Commerce, Oliver Cescotti, joined Biomicrogels Group’s Board of Directors to share his experience, extra expertise and the scope of necessary contacts.
The company expects to boost its presence in the global biopolymer market through efforts in clean fresh water conservation, vegetable oil extraction, oil spill response, biopolymer coatings development, and production of eco-friendly detergents and cosmetics, thus providing an opportunity for everyone to engage in keeping our planet clean. Experts estimate that the biopolymer market will grow by 25% within the next five years. The company’s another ambitious future project aims to make an IPO on an international stock exchange.