Operating from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, green tech startup Releaf Paper is trying to make paper production more environmentally friendly by allowing fallen tree leaves scattered on the floor to be used instead of wood bark that involves the culling of forests.
Now the project has an early boost with an infusion of funds from the EU Commission, following the formal reveal of investees from the 2022 edition of EIC's accelerator programme, in which Releaf was crowned champion.
Releaf Paper will take on €2.5 million of grant money through the EU programme. The money will go to delivering a €3.5 million initial phase of a new pilot production line, in Lutsk, Ukraine, using Releaf's concept to make paper from fallen leaves. Releaf Paper expects the funding to last two years, with the first tranche to arrive in April 2023.
The EU has also left the door open to increasing its contribution, through its European Investment Fund. With the help of the fund, Releaf could increase its supply of EU capital to above €10 million.
The EIF has said it would provide additional investments to enable scaling up of the project, potentially leading to two more production lines by 2027-end, and in two separate target markets.
The woodless pulping technique which uses cellulose from leaf discard piles was devised by 21-year old biotechnologist Valentyn Frechka, who's been working on it since he was a 16 year old student in Ukraine's western Zakarpattia Oblast.
According to Frechka's fellow co-founder Oleksandr Sobolenko the accelerator funding comes as a surprise - just 1-1.5% of EU SME applicants receive funds, never mind winning the whole thing.
After joining the accelerator the company partnered up with an Estonia-based management consultancy, CIVITTA, which Sobolenko says proved to be crucial.
"This became an important success factor," Sobolenko said. "The selection process lasted over 7 months and included 2 rounds of validation and a final interview with five experts representing Western European VCs."
"As a result, Releaf Paper beat out more than 6,500 competing companies and received the coveted funding. We can finally start building our own pilot production line!”
Releaf Paper claims forest conservation will save 17 trees from being cut down with every tonne of leaf-derived paper it produces. Pilot sales of the paper used as packaging and paper bags began in September 2021, using an early test facility in Ukraine with 5,000 tonnes of annual capacity.
Valentyn Frechka added: "We are closer than ever to the goal of starting a series of our own production line of the new generation, where the paper of the future, Releaf paper, will be created.
"When at the end of this year everyone is talking about reducing carbon footprint, deforestation and stopping environmental catastrophe, we are taking real steps to revolutionise the paper industry!”