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Startup Innovation Challenge

NoPalm Ingredients on creating deforestation-free palm oil [Interview]

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NoPalm Ingredients is using microbial fermentation to produce palm oil in laboratories without oil palms, a development that it says will reduce deforestation rates in tropical regions. “We’re bold and unafraid. In the future we want our microbial oil to be the standard alternative ingredient to palm oil," says its co-founder and CEO.
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The sixth edition of the Fi Global Startup Innovation Challenge, hosted during Fi Europe, gave startups the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a jury of R&D experts, investors, and major F&B industry company representatives. NoPalm Ingredients was the deserved category winner for Most Innovative F&B Ingredient or Processing Technology.

We spoke with co-founder and CEO Lars Langhout about the formative influences in his professional life, his fermentation-based solution to replacing palm oil, and how this can help make the world a better place. 

“Startups tend to be more agile and solutions-oriented,” says Langhout, based in Amsterdam. “In my career in consulting, I’ve seen it over and over again that companies are too much internally focused. They are so caught up in meetings, alignments and corporate politics that they miss what’s right in front of them. So, for me, the Startup Innovation Challenge is a prestigious award that underlines our ambition and confirms that we’re on the right track. To me personally, it means recognition of our plan and the need in the market.”

Finding inspiration

Langhout comes from a family of educators, who helped to instil in him the notion of helping other people and having an impact.

“Contrary to my parents, grandparents, uncles and sister though, I didn’t become a teacher,” he says. “Instead, I chose business.”

After starting out as a consultant, helping food companies with growth strategies and operating model challenges, he decided to pursue an MBA at Columbia Business School in New York.

“This was a transformative experience,” he says. “Meeting so many inspiring individuals – business leaders, professors and classmates – over one and a half years influenced me deeply.”

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One of these formative experiences involved coming across Bowery Farming. CEO Irving Fain offered Langhout the opportunity to help the then startup with their sales strategy, and this provided the young entrepreneur with an insight into how business could be combined with having a positive climate impact.

“I found that this was where my heart lies,” he says. “When I came back to Amsterdam, I promised myself to gain as much professional experience as I needed to run a startup on my own. About a year ago, I decided it was time to leave my comfort zone and take the plunge. That’s around the time my co-founder, Jeroen Hugenholtz, and I met.”

Delivering sustainable solutions

The core purpose of NoPalm Ingredients is to help businesses replace palm oil as an ingredient in food, cosmetics and detergents, through supplying a high quality, local, circular, and sustainable alternative. This is a major challenge, given that palm oil is a EUR 75 billion industry that permeates almost every consumer product sector. But as Langhout points out, it is vital that this challenge is met – rainforests from Costa Rica to Indonesia are being cleared at unsustainable rates to make way for oil palm tree plantations. This releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and destroys habitats for people and endangered wildlife.

“I’ve been concerned about climate change for many years, and have seen the devastations of palm oil plantations,” he says. “When Jeroen told me about the possibility of making a palm oil alternative using local side streams, I knew this was the opportunity I had been waiting for.”

NoPalm Ingredients applies fermentation technology to create a bio-based microbial oil. This, says Langhout, is a truly sustainable alternative to palm oil. And while securing funding might have been a challenge at the beginning, the startup has been supported by a network of people that care deeply about the environment and have been keen to invest.

This has enabled the company to plan for the future. Over the next two years, NoPalm Ingredients will rapidly scale up its technology to industrial levels, and raise a new round of funding to build its first production plant. Langhout also foresees ecosystems of startups around side streams being established, each of which can valorise biomass in a way that makes the most use of resources.

“We’re bold and unafraid,” says Langhout. “In the future we want our microbial oil to be the standard alternative ingredient to palm oil in food, cosmetics and detergents. We foresee a future where our children don’t get to see the devastations of those palm oil plantations, but instead, lush green tropical rainforest with abundant wildlife.”
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