Is the ExpandFibre engine towing or pushing? We will only reach the destination together!

Is the ExpandFibre engine towing or pushing? We will only reach the destination together!

Blog 02.02.2021

As the year 2019 was drawing towards its end, many large Finnish companies were excited about Business Finland’s new funding instrument. Large corporations were acknowledged for their ability to make a remarkable impact on the R&D expenditure in the Finnish GDP, and Business Finland wanted to encourage them by releasing a totally novel funding instrument. I dare say that our company was not the only one that received the news with enthusiasm and started envisioning, rapid e-mail exchanges and arranging workshops, with perhaps an inkling of despair: will we make it on time?

At the end of the day, the so-called Veturi challenge for leading companies (veturi referring to an engine or a locomotive) attracted 25 companies that identified themselves in that role, including Metsä Group and Fortum. In addition to us applying for the funding as ExpandFibre in the first place, we also managed to find each other, align our shared vision and goals, and build an entity which is more than a sum of its parts. All this was achieved within a very short time frame. Having been in charge of the proposal preparation process at Metsä Group, I have to admit that the atmosphere was extremely excited but also mildly terrified after we had submitted our 1st phase application in a timely manner to the Business Finland’s electronic service!  

The months we had spent in intensive (remote) collaboration enhanced the joint vision of Metsä Group and Fortum to bring sustainably produced bioproducts from sustainable raw materials to new markets – with textile fibres at the forefront. After we had submitted our 2nd phase application, I already had a gut feeling that now we have a nationally remarkable project and ecosystem in our hands. As we received the positive funding decision in late June and the rush of contacts that followed the publishing of the news in the autumn, I got convinced that ExpandFibre will leave its mark on the Finnish research and innovation field. On a personal note, the application process, research programme and ecosystem are a once in a lifetime experience for a project manager professional like me.   

But what is that locomotive all about? Is it towing a number of smaller cars, which are forced to follow the same track at the same pace with the locomotive (using the electricity paid by the locomotive), or is the locomotive pushing the cars forward in front of it? There is no doubt the locomotive has a powerful engine which helps the others, but I personally prefer the merchant fleet analogy: those interested are welcome to join in and they can get support by being towed or pushed toward the shared destination. The most important thing is the determination of each participant and the joint direction of the merchant fleet to eventually reach the destination.   

At the destination awaits the future, where the most sustainable biomass sources in the world (northern wood) and new under-utilized sustainable biomass sources (straw) will become accessible to an increasing number of value chains and consumers. Sustainably produced fibre will be introduced in textile industry, technical fabrics, hygiene products and as replacements to plastic packaging and everyday items. What is more, the R&D for bioproducts based on lignin and hemicellulose will be accelerated to ensure the financial feasibility of concepts fractionating biomass, and to ensure we have versatile tools on molecular level to challenge fossil-based materials.  

At the end of 2020, Business Finland announced three new companies to receive Veturi funding: we are now a group of seven (Metsä Group, Fortum, Neste, Nokia, ABB, Sandvik and KONE). Let us use this opportunity wisely, showing an example to the others through open communication. It will not be necessary to put all the cards on the table, but it is advisable to communicate the needs and vision to the outside world: when creating new businesses, the only way to reach the destination is to do it together.

By Katariina Kemppainen, Investment Manager, Metsä Group