Kristians Grundstoks, CEO of Polylabs talks surfing, the global bio polyol market and new technologies in a FoamExpo exhibitor interview
Kristians Grundstoks has a background in law. He has held positions as a lawyer and head of divisions in law firms, as well as in the state forensic science bureau and insurance industry. After deciding law was not challenging enough, Grundstoks turned to innovative product commercialisation projects. He founded Polylabs in 2014, and has been CEO of the company ever since.
Please tell us about your current role. What are your key focus areas and responsibilities?
A CEO in a rather young, fast-growing company means a lot more responsibilities than an average CEO of a well-established large company with a chain of command. I am still very hands-on on every issue, from product development to production, purchasing, marketing, sales and logistics. I go to see my customers and meet them in exhibitions; I am present in the production process to oversee it; and I select and order samples of new raw materials. As we are a fast-growing company I personally hire and train all the team members. We are still building and developing our team, so there are a lot of exciting challenges ahead.
What inspired you to join/start this company?
The inspiration came from one of my hobbies – wave surfing. In our very shallow Baltic Sea we only get waves when there are storms, so it is actually called storm surfing. It takes a lot of guts to get out in bad weather and be in the sea for a long time, waiting for the best waves to come. So naturally you have a lot of time sitting on a surfboard in the sea to think about life, you see how strong nature is and how much the human race has poisoned it with plastic and waste. An idea was born to try make an environmentally friendly surfboard. That is how we came to polyurethane. After some tests with good friends at a national institute of wood chemistry of Latvia we decided to take a step back and go with the basic raw material: bio polyol. So we teamed up with the institute – they help us doing the science part and we upscale and do the manufacture part. A fantastic team was born with more than 50 years of experience in polymer science (from soviet space programmes to European space agency, Airbus, Pininfarina – these are just a few projects of the institute).
What do you think sets your company apart from your competitors?
Renewable resources have become a modern trend during the past decade. The global bio polyol market is growing at a rate that is 1% faster than the overall global polyol market. That shows there is a lot of interest in the bio polyol market. However, bio-based products are almost always more expensive. This is called the “green premium” in the industry. Nobody wants to pay a green premium in this price-sensitive market. The “green premium” and the low crude oil price limits the full potential of the bio-based polyol market. The industry can not satisfy a growing market demand for a reasonably priced bio-based product. Until now.
Polylabs’ bio-based polyols are based on clean wasteless technology that allows us to compete with petrochemical polyols, and their price is well below other bio-based polyols – so no “green premium” here.
Our customers get all the bio-based product advantages such as independence from crude oil prices, high renewable content (up to 83%), reduced CO2 footprint, eco certification compliance and more.
Besides all the bio-based product advantages there are even some technical advantages of using our bio polyols as well, such as added hydrophobic character to the PU foam, autocatalytic nature allowing up to 50% savings in catalysts in spray systems, and very good miscibility with pentanes helping to solve separation issues.
And they get all these benefits at the same price level as the crude-oil-based polyols. I think it is as good a deal as it can ever get.
What are the key opportunities and challenges your company faces at present?
The biggest challenge for us was to get our first customers. As a rather new company with an innovative product you need to be able to prove your advantages and product value, and that takes some time. The second you get one or two customers, everybody else follows. We are now at that point where everybody else is following. It feels great. So we are seeing a challenge to scale our production capacity in the next few years. We have previously planned to launch a 10,000-tons production facility by early 2020, but now it seems that we will need a slightly bigger capacity.
Are there any new technology developments that you are working on at the moment? Can you tell us about them?
Our latest development is a 100% bio-based polyol which will be ready for market by the end of this year. It has a higher functionality and lower reactivity, designed for slower reacting PU systems. We can not say anymore yet. But we have a lot of interested customers and we are planning to send out the first samples by the end of summer.
What would you say most excites you about your role?
The everyday excitement is to do my part in making the world a bit greener. If everybody would do this, imagine what a place we would have. Apart from the philosophical point it is a fantastic feeling to see how the company is developing. As I created it myself from just an idea, it feels like seeing your child growing up. It is very dynamic to be on top of every issue and this is what I am excited about.
How do you think the industry will develop within the next five years? Can you tell us about the key trends emerging?
Green trend gets stronger every year. CO2 tax and other regulatory mechanisms are predicted to be enforced within EU and outside EU countries to motivate the switch from crude oil to renewables and reduced CO2 footprints. Everybody who will have bio-based products in their portfolio will benefit from that, as upscaling an existing product will be faster than new product development.
What do you hope to achieve at the show next year, and what connections do you hope to make?
I hope to meet a large number of our current customers, and make new contacts and possible partnerships in joining forces in certain markets.