As with many inventions, Novacem’s core product came about more by accident than intent. In 2004, as a PhD candidate in sustainable construction materials at Imperial College, the environmental engineer took part in a joint project with Cambridge University to check out a promising new technology for reducing the carbon emitted in making cement. The business case was clear: about one tonne of carbon dioxide is released to make one tonne of cement – which explains why the cement industry is responsible for about 5 per cent of the world’s industrial output of CO2.
Vlasopoulos was to investigate claims by an Australian company that it had successfully come up with a more environmentally friendly cement alternative using magnesium oxide. But a year and a half into the project, he realized it did not live up to its promise. “It wasn’t as strong as cement, and the economic benefits were not there,” recalls Vlasopoulos.
He did not like the idea of focusing his doctorate on the failed product, however. With the help of some additional research grants, he and his supervisor at Imperial, Chris Cheeseman, decided to try to come with their own alternative cement.
By mid-2005, they were already seeing their first results. The cement uses magnesium silicates in a low-temperature process to produce magnesium oxide. Special mineral additives improve the resulting cement’s strength and C02 absorption. The product, they say, emits minimal CO2 in the manufacturing process and can be processed at far lower temperatures than Portland cement. In addition, as the cement hardens, it absorbs carbon in the atmosphere, making it a “carbon negative” product.
Vlasopoulos already had a keen interest in entrepreneurship, which made it a logical step to commercialise the invention. His interest went back to his time as an undergraduate in London, he says, when he helped his flatmates draw up a business plan to take part in a local business plan competition. “I already had some experience in trying to create a start-up. Without this exposure, I’m not sure I would have known what to do with my idea.”
Going to plan
In 2006, he represented Imperial College in several national and international business plan competitions, and the following year received a Technology Venture Fellowship at Tanaka Business School. That same year he founded Novacem with Cheeseman, with things moving quickly from there.
In 2008, Novacem raised £1 million in seed funding from Imperial Innovations, the London Technology Fund and the Royal Society Enterprise Fund in 2008 and added technology entrepreneur Stuart Evans as executive chairman. It is also expanding rapidly, having added 11 employees in the last six months of 2009 alone. “It’s very exciting to see a company come together at this stage,” says Vlasopoulos, who serves as Novacem’s Chief Scientist and sits on the board of directors.
But, as with other cleantech start-ups, the company will have to both prove its product works on an industrial scale and convince an entrenched industry of the need for change. “The cement industry is not well known for innovation," concedes Vlasopoulos. Novacem will start by pitching its cement for use in simple masonry blocks, and at the same time, will work on further improving the properties of its cement at Imperial.
Meanwhile, the company has large industrial partners such as Laing O’Rourke and Rio Tinto Minerals testing its product. Going forward, it will look at licensing or selling its technology – or it could raise the funds to build its own cement plant. But with a potential cost of between £3 million and £6 million this is the least likely option, says Vlasopoulos.