By Camila Souza Ramos & Ivo Ribeiro – From São Paulo
After a seven-year cycle in which it sought to invent and reinvent ways to transform biomass into a safe carbon source alternative to oil, Gradin family's GranBio begins a new chapter in its history this week. The company is now chaired by an executive from outside the controlling family – Paulo Nigro, who joined the board in November – and will try to consolidate itself as a supplier of industrial technology for biomass conversion processes.
Nigro, who led Tetra Pak for 25 years in Latin America and the Americas, and Aché Laboratórios in Brazil for four years, will have the task of ensuring return to a company recognized for its pioneering role in cellulosic ethanol, but which will now focus on the supply of technology to plants that want to produce biochemicals and biofuels from biomass, such as wood, straw and other types of waste from the field. GranBio has not yet released its 2019 balance sheet, but in 2018 it had gross sales of BRL 24 million, a profit before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (Ebitda) of BRL 18 million and accumulated losses since it was created of BRL 456 million.
The changes come at a time when GranBio is preparing to list shares on B3, in the Bovespa Mais segment, and is considering going public in Brazil or abroad. The initiative should be an exit door for BNDESPar, who has a 15% stake in the company and has already revealed its intention to dispose of this participation. The first step for the listing will be taken today, when the shareholders come together to ratify the decision.
Created in 2013 to manufacture ethanol from sugarcane waste (bagasse and straw), GranBio eventually designed and patented technologies to overcome the challenges of the process. This turned the company into the holder of unique expertise for breaking and transforming biomass. It is this "capital" that is considered by shareholders as attractive for investors.
To Valor, Nigro said he joined GranBio at a particular moment not only because of the metamorphosis that the company is going through, but also because of the corporate context, in which large groups – such as BlackRock and oil company BP – are announcing their decarbonization commitments. The claim that there is a "sustainable turnaround" in the business circuit can finally materialize the demand for alternative energies that GranBio seeks to meet.
What increases the security of the new business model are the ongoing decarbonization policies, said company's partner Bernardo Gradin – especially in Europe, which recently announced the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. According to Gradin, the prospect is that the continent will build 40 biomass conversion plants by 2030 to meet its emissions goals.
It is true that the new bet has some uncertainty to it, especially because of the various paths that the decarbonization of the economy can follow, but Gradin believes that we have firmer ground ahead than we did seven years ago, when the cellulosic ethanol project started. "The market is beginning to determine demand without having the solution. And it's been seven years that our company's been building a solution for a market that did not yet exist."
Since the acquisition of the American Process technologies and assets last year – in which it initially had a 25% stake –, GranBio has been the holder of about 200 industrial patents capable of overcoming obstacles such as those experienced by its BioFlex plant in São Miguel dos Campos, state of Alagoas.
Among the patented technologies are equipment and processes to homogenize biomass and pressure control. When GranBio starts licensing patents, it will charge royalties commensurate with productivity gains at user factories.
The Alagoas unit remains in operation, but plans to replicate it have been discarded. "BioFlex becomes more of a demonstrative plant," said Gradin. In 2019, the plant operated mainly with bagasse burning to co-generate power. Recently, it broke its daily record of cellulosic ethanol production, with more than 100,000 liters in 24 hours. By 2021, the company will invest BRL 30 million to get rid of industry bottlenecks.
GranBio's main unit is now Atlanta, owned by its subsidiary GranBio Tech. It is there that the company tests and designs processes to break down biomass to obtain its nanocellulose, which, unlike the nanocellulose from other manufacturers, does not absorb water. The product has several uses and can replace, for example, silica and carbon black in tires, or even cellulose in cardboard. More than 27 types of biomass have been tested, including 15 types of wood.