Located in the northern part of the Netherlands, Senbis Polymer Innovations has what may be a unique business set-up: it offers industrial R&D services focused on polyesters in general and filaments & yarns particular, in combination with own product developments, with a focus on biodegradable materials. “We don’t have a lot of commercial competitors,” noted co-owner and managing director, Gerard Nijhoving. The latest project? Completely compostable artificial turf systems.
“Artificial grass is a yarn, and with our expertise in yarns and filaments, it was a product that made sense for us,” said Nijhoving. “Artificial turf is here to stay, so why not make it more sustainable? Right now, there is no good end-of-life solution for discarded artificial turf systems. Together with our partners in the project, we are working hard to develop one.”
A young company but a long history
Senbis Polymer Innovations is a relatively new name in the plastics world. Gerard Nijhoving’s previous company was called Senbis –short for sustainable energy business – whose activities were more focused on sustainable energy and biodiesel.
Nijhoving, at that time an Emmen-based freelance business consultant, then came into contact with a company called Applied Polymer Innovations – API - and its shareholders, which he ultimately went on to acquire, together with an investor.
“That’s where the Polymer Innovations part of the name comes from,” he said. “It describes exactly what we do, so I kept it.”
API was a company that had emerged in 2008 from the former research and development department of Diolen Industrial Fibers, a producer of polyester yarns, in Emmen. Diolen, itself an offshoot of AkzoNobel, became insolvent in 2008. Its R&D department continued independently under the name API.
“In other words, the PET production disappeared, but all facilities, all this specialist knowledge and expertise accumulated over decades were still here. And unlike the academic research carried out at universities, our capabilities are oriented towards industrial polymer development. We have a pilot plant here with facilities that you can upscale to a metric ton a day,” Nijhoving explained.
As an R&D service provider, API also developed innovative activities of its own, one of which was the production of monofilaments for 3D printing.
“Because of its long history in yarns, monofilaments and multifilaments, increasing numbers of customers – polymer producers – were turning to API, asking for 3D printing grades of their products, to produce filaments. While research activities are hard to scale up, these innovations were much less so.”
This led to the creation of a spin-off company, called Innofil 3D, wholly specialised in 3D printing filaments. The venture grew more and more successful, becoming the focus of further investment for the shareholders. The question was, what to do with the research activities?
“I saw an opportunity,” said Nijhoving. “They had already done a lot of work in biopolymers and were looking into different applications. I thought that would be an area in which the company should have more focus. We decided it would be better to split off: they would focus on the 3D printing while I suggested I would take over the research activities, so that we could realise the ideas that we had for biodegradable polymers.”
That was around five years ago. The acquisition was completed in 2016 and on 1 January 2017, under the two new owners, API became Senbis Polymer Innovations B.V. The former shareholders focused on the 3D printing company - and then sold it to BASF. That, said Nijhoving, is confirmation that a small research company can indeed develop an innovation that a large established company could view as an extension to their own capabilities. “A huge compliment.”