Through Imagine Chemistry, AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals invites startups and researchers to work with us to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the chemicals industry today. During the 2017 edition, we invited 20 teams from over 200 submissions to the finals, ultimately selecting 10 winners to receive additional support from us and our partners to turn their ideas into reality. Here we catch up with FiliGrade, one of last year’s winners.

FiliGrade is a privately held, Netherlands-based company specialized in watermark solutions. Through their innovative watermarks, which they incorporate into all kinds of product packaging, they help customers improve and optimize anti-counterfeiting, consumer engagement (e.g. through interactive packaging), and the sustainability of their products (e.g. through materials labeling).

That last point is what brought them in contact with AkzoNobel. Properly sorting plastics poses challenges to recycling them on a large scale. FiliGrade’s unique watermarks, added to the mold or artwork of each plastic item, are detected by digital cameras above waste plant conveyor belts, helping identify items at a fast pace and sort them into the correct bin. This scalable, sustainable solution yields improved recycling rates and could ultimately pioneer unlimited plastic identification, which made it an exciting candidate for last year’s challenge area “Revolutionizing plastics recycling.”

During Imagine Chemistry, FiliGrade was selected to receive dedicated support from startup specialists ICOS Research and the innovation team of KPMG to develop their business case and route to market. Having spent the past months working intensively with KPMG to refine their business case, FiliGrade are looking forward to continued collaboration and expansion in 2018. While they are currently moving full speed ahead, the company has followed a somewhat surprising path to get to where they are today.

Co-founder Johan Kerver got his start as an entrepreneur teaching graphic design in the early 1990s. After some photographer students of his inquired about ways to protect their images, Johan devised a way to secure them using watermarks. This led to questions about protecting packaging, which led to a new method, which led to the founding of FiliGrade, which led to even more opportunities. Johan elaborates, “You can imagine that if you want to buy a perfume in a box, if you do so at a street market you can be pretty sure it’s fake, whereas if you buy it at a fancy department store you can be pretty sure it’s the real thing. However, there’s a lot in between.”

Those more nuanced scenarios are where FiliGrade’s technology really comes in handy. Their biggest client at the moment produces laminates, such as the wood-like patterns found on inexpensive furniture. These patterns have been widely copied in places like China as well as Europe, but thanks to FiliGrade’s technology, laminate manufacturers have a way to protect their IP. “Now that the market knows that this is defendable, copying is already decreasing,” Johan adds.

How to solve the challenge of sorting plastics was the next question asked of them, and their answer could be their biggest breakthrough yet. From early 2D designs, they’ve arrived at plastic packaging watermarks which are basically invisible and can indicate exactly what kind of packaging is being detected. As Johan notes, “Food vs. non-food, single layer vs. multi-layer, all kinds of colors - these are no issue for us.”

Next up is testing out in the real world. “We will do some heavy testing in the next year with Tomra, who create the selection machines, and with SUEZ on a real waste belt with all kinds of dirt on the waste and see how good our technology really is. But everyone in our environment is quite confident we will pull it off.”

The market also seems quite confident. Procter & Gamble and Danone were convinced enough of their potential to offer equipment to support the development of their technology. Accenture gave them an innovation award and sponsored their attendance at the Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon. AkzoNobel of course selected them as an Imagine Chemistry winner. And KPMG wants to find ways to support the business into their next phase of development.

As Johan sees it, a good idea will always convince people, but of course they need to hear you first. “In the end it’s your business and you have to make your own business and grow it. We have done that, but the publicity we have gotten through Imagine Chemistry has made it easier to contact people.”
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Imagine Chemistry 2018 is open for submissions from January 10th to March 10th, with the finals event taking place from May 29th to June 1st in Gothenburg, Sweden. If you think you have a solution that can help us make the chemicals industry more sustainable, join our Challenge at www.imaginechemistry.com
For more information about FiliGrade, visit www.filigrade.com