Finding Success with a Waterproof Wood Composite

Finding Success with a Waterproof Wood Composite

Author: Vera KoesterORCID iD, Petro Lahtinen

Dr. Petro Lahtinen is the founder and CEO of Woodio Oy, Helsinki, Finland, a manufacturer of washbasins and other bathroom furniture made of a special solid wood composite material. The wood composite is extremely wear- and tear-resistant, completely waterproof, lightweight, easy to install, clean, and suitable for mass production. In principle, any product that can be made from ceramics can also be made from this material, albeit in a much more sustainable way. The idea for this innovation was first hatched during a university Christmas party.

Here, Petro Lahtinen speaks with Vera Koester of ChemistryViews about his discovery and the founding of Woodio, and why he considers chemical entrepreneurship to be less risky than pursuing a scientific career at the university level.

 

What is unique about your waterproof wood-based composite material?

The unique feature of the composite is the fact that it is waterproof to begin with. We have our first patent on the technology that prevents the composite from absorbing water. Even if it is submerged in water for half a year—I think that was our longest test—the weight change is less than 1 %. That means that it basically does not absorb any water, which is remarkable because we are using wood as raw material, and wood, as you know, typically absorbs moisture. It will definitely take on water from its environment.

We achieve this through our casting process. Our products are not made 100 % from wood, they are wood composites. We mix them with resins and we have some fillers in the material as well. The binders basically penetrate the wood pores so deeply that they kind of encapsulate them and make them impermeable to water. That’s the idea, and the casting process we have developed is the key to achieving this.

 

What makes your wood composite sustainable?

Obviously, sustainability is relative. The most sustainable course of action would be to not do anything at all. But since people have natural needs that require sanitary conditions, we are using our material instead of ceramics.

Emissions from the ceramics industry mainly come from manufacturing, as clay has to be fired in kilns at temperatures of up to a couple thousand degrees Celsius. In Europe, that process is fueled mainly by natural gas or in some cases with oil. The furnace for industrial ceramic manufacturing can be 300 meters long. It operates 24/7 at about 1500 °C, and the product stays in the oven for 12 hours. That creates enormous CO2 emissions. When we compare ourselves to the ceramics industry, we are virtually emissions-free.

There are, of course, some emissions involved in our production, but compared to ceramics we are more than 80 % smaller in our carbon footprint. We obtain our raw material from forest industry surpluses that would otherwise be burned.

 

Can your products ultimately be recycled?

You can recycle them by grinding up the products and using them as the raw material for the production of particle boards. But you can also use them as a source of energy. It depends on the customers and how recycling or waste management is organized in different countries. There are huge differences there.

 

How did you come to produce bathroom furniture from your composite?

We came up with the composite first and then we started to look at what would be the best application for the material. If you have a wood material that you can cast into a mold, there are no limits. You can basically make all the products that you can make from plastic out of our material. So the range is huge, but you need to choose something and focus on something. We found out that we are most disruptive in replacing ceramics, and that is why we wanted to start from there. However, our customers are already making tables and decorative items out of our material, so it remains to be seen where we you will be able to find it in ten years.

 

So you also sell the composite as raw material?

Yes, we sell panels measuring 2 meters by 60 centimeters that you can cut and glue to build something of your own. And we also make customized products, for example, as subcontracted manufacturing for some brands.

 

Can you change the properties of the material by using different resins or other materials in the wood?

You probably could. At the moment, the material works well in our applications, so we do not see any need to change the properties. Obviously, we are sourcing for more and more sustainable raw materials, and there is always something to improve, but as it is, it works really nicely in the present applications.

But when you start changing the binders and playing around with the composition of the material, the properties definitely change. If you change them enough, the results are outside of our own patents, so there is kind of a small circle that we can operate in. Otherwise, it becomes something else.

 

How did you come up with this material? How long did it take you from first conceiving the idea until it actually became a product?

Well, the origin story is quite long. I was at the University of Helsinki doing my Ph.D. studies. My topic was pulp bleaching, and my friend who was doing his thesis at the same time was studying biodegradable polymers. It was at a Christmas party—incidentally, some red wine might also have been involved in this—where we started to just play around and take my samples and take his samples and mix them in a cup.

At that moment we didn’t realize what we were doing, but the next week we looked at it again and said, hey, this looks like a really tough material. That is how it started. In other words, the first sample came about after a few drinks at a university party.

 

Are you saying that alcohol and parties are good for innovation and can benefit your career?

Sometimes, yes. That was about ten years ago. Using this same idea, there are now three companies making different solutions from the composite. Woodio is focusing on sanitary use cases and interior design, and the others are producing medical devices and packages out of it.

But the first idea for Woodio came, I think, in 2014–15, when we started thinking about what else we could do with the material. It took more than five years to go from idea to product.

 

Have you still continued your research in this field?

I have not. To be honest, I don’t have much time for research anymore. Obviously, I participate in our internal R&D meetings and try to contribute as much as I can. But when you start a company and take over the business, you need to worry about funding, market trends, and distribution. There are so many things going on that it is impossible to still focus on R&D, at least in any productive way. You can always pretend that you are engaged in R&D, but in reality, it is very difficult.

 

What was your career path like? During your studies, did you already know that you would one day become an entrepreneur and start your own company?

I think it has been always a dream of mine. I have had two dreams: to become a scientist and become a millionaire. So that about sums it up.

I wanted to do a Ph.D. and I also did three years of postdoctoral work. Back then, I wanted to continue academic research for as long as possible. Quite early on, though—maybe halfway through my Ph.D.—I started thinking more seriously about what the business idea could be. Obviously, I wanted to combine my education and chemistry background and what I had learned at school for the business idea. It was a five- to six-year process of going from a Ph.D. student into a founding CEO of a startup company.

 

Is Finland very good at promoting new ideas and supporting new businesses?

Yes, I think that Finland is a good environment for startups. If you have a feasible idea and you can present it clearly and with a strong commercial case, you will quite likely get funding, and you will be supported by the government. In fact, the universities are also quite good at promoting companies. But the biggest driver is your own personality, I would think.

If I think back, my colleagues at the university just wanted to get a good position in a corporation and kind of make a nice career at the corporate level. Very few—at least of my fellow students—dreamed about becoming an entrepreneur. It is not something that chemists do that often.

When I was at university, I was already kind of an entrepreneur. So it’s something that I think has been in me from the very beginning.

 

In the long run, it would be great for chemistry and probably for all of us if we had more startups and more ideas coming out of chemistry into startups. Do you have any ideas on how we could change attitudes so that more students might think about becoming entrepreneurs?

That is a really good question and one I have been thinking about a lot. It hurts me to see how many promising inventions and ideas people have while at university and how often they are published, maybe even patented, but then nothing happens. The drawers at the universities are full of ideas with lots of potential, but for some reason, that’s where they stay. I guess it is mainly because people who end up at university want to be researchers or scientists. They want to study, to discover new things, but they don’t necessarily want to create new things. So I guess that’s the root cause of this situation. But I do know that there is so much untapped potential at the university level.

Nevertheless, I guess somehow getting entrepreneurial people from business and bringing them together with scientists might help. You are going to need an interdisciplinary team for your company regardless. You need people from finance, people from marketing, people from sales, and people from production on top of the foundational scientific work.

I guess it would also help if they were shown good examples of some people who have made it. In any case, it is interesting to note that I have not had a single month without a salary since I started as an entrepreneur. It is a common misconception among scientists that when you start a business then you cannot afford to pay yourself a salary—that it’s a struggle where you don’t know what is going to happen next. But in reality, the grants that you get as a scientist at the university are even more meager these days. It is riskier to stay at the university. If you have your company and you have the funding, then it’s like working in any other company. You just happen to own it.

 

I think that is a really good point. We all know that there is uncertainty associated with staying in academia, yet many do it. I think we all still have the idea that starting your own business is even more risky.

Yes, but it’s not actually like that. Statistically, nowadays, at least in Finland, if you get a grant for over two years, you are really lucky. The prospect of obtaining funding for ten years is no longer the case—again, as things are in Finland. There used to be these professorships for life or for your whole career, but nowadays I think the maximum tenure is five years. Then you need to figure out what you are going to do next.

One way to get more chemists to start a company would be to create awareness around the fact that it’s not that scary. You don’t die immediately upon leaving the university. If you were to provide people with facts and positive examples, that might help.

 

What was the biggest adjustment for you after you left the university?

After leaving university, I realized how well-equipped universities are and what great resources they have—things like gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers. These very typical analytical devices are available 24/7 if you are a Ph.D. student. But when you start your company and you want to conduct a single analysis, it costs 1,000 euros, you don’t get access to the equipment, and you don’t get the result until next Christmas. You don’t realize this when you are at university. But when you are out of that environment you realize that not everybody in the world has access to gas chromatographs.

 

You said you needed an interdisciplinary team to start a business. Where did you find these other people?

These days, I find them by headhunting and recruiting. In the very beginning when you are preparing to set up your company, that’s the difficult part. Maybe universities or some other institutions could organize get-togethers or some kind of forum where people who are thinking about starting a company but don’t have a business idea and scientists who do have a business idea or a product could be brought together. I think that might actually help things because money is tight at the very beginning. You need to sell your idea by explaining your vision and convincing people to join your team.

 

What would you say drives you?

I guess the main driver is just that I like doing this. I could not imagine doing anything else. Both the business and the funding part are really interesting, and then having a technology and developing it and explaining it to more and more people is really motivating. And, obviously, there is also the financial incentive at the bottom of everything. I would not do this for free.

I think every entrepreneur has this kind of American Dream feeling—that sounds a bit stupid, I know—but it’s the desire and the willpower to make it and create a successful company. If you do not have that feeling, then I would stick with something else. A big part of it all is creating something new, and that’s what is really interesting.

 

At what point did you know that your idea would be good enough to start a successful company?

I do not know yet, to be honest. The next ten years will show that.

It also depends on how you define a successful company. Some really stupid business ideas have received funding, and there have been good companies that then just went under. I have also seen really stupid ideas succeed. So it is hard to say when you have kind of made it.
However, at the moment it seems that there is strong demand for our products. People really like them, people like our brand, and they like what we are doing, and that keeps us going.

 

What do you think in general about the trend to make so much out of wood? Will there always be enough wood for it when, for example, forests in Central Europe are dying due to climate change?

That’s a really good question. I am not sure how things will play out. It depends on how climate change progresses. If Europe moves to a subtropical climate, in 20 years there will be other kinds of animals and trees. But I guess if the CO2 levels increase, there will be a lot of biomass available. Whether or not it is in the right form for the wood industry is difficult to say.

At the moment it is 30 °C in Helsinki. If it continues like this, I do not know what will happen. I am a bit worried about it, to be honest.

 

What do you do when you’re not working for your company?

At the moment I am sitting in my boat, and we are about to go on summer holiday.

 

Enjoy the summer and thank you for the interview.


Petro Lahtinen studied chemistry at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and received his Ph.D. there in 2005. After working for some time as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, he founded the company Onbone Oy, Helsinki, in 2008. He was initially the CEO and later the director of this company. Onbone manufactures the patented wood composite material Woodcast, which is often used in the medical field. Woodcast is a nontoxic, fully biodegradable and wholly malleable material.

From January 2016, Lahtinen was chairman of the board of Sulapac Ltd. in Helsinki for almost two years. In 2016, he also founded Woodio, of which he is currently the CEO.

 

Woodio is an eco-design and materials technology company that has managed to create something new in the very conservative bathroom industry, both in terms of design and material technology. The company’s product Woodio®, a solid wood composite, is an ecological alternative to ceramics. The ceramic industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world.

Woodio’s 100 % waterproof solid wood composite material and molding technology do not require large amounts of water and energy or high-temperature kilns to produce the final product. Because of this, the carbon footprint is much lower than that of traditional bathroom materials. The low weight of the end product and its durability also reduce emissions and losses in logistics.

Woodio received €7.5 million in EIC Accelerator funding from the European Innovation Council to support the internationalization of the company. It has also received the Pentti Malaska Futures Award from the University of Turku, Finland, in 2021 (awarded for a research-based and breakthrough visionary innovation that can help build a more sustainable global future); the Fennia Prize Winner Award in 2020 (one of Finland’s best-known design competitions); and the Design Deed of the Year Award from the Design from Finland brand in 2019.

 

 

Also of Interest

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An interview with president of IUPAC, professor, entrepreneur, and author Javier García-Martínez

 

Chemistry Drives InnovationInterview: Chemistry Drives Innovation

Entrepreneurship in chemical training and importance of start-ups for innovation

 

 

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