Sustainable Industry

“Brazil is ready to become a world leader in energy transition”

Bernardo Gradin, CEO of Granbio, explains that the primary mission of his industrial biotechnology company is to help speed up the energy transition to a low-carbon economy based on Brazil’s comparative advantages

At 57, Bernardo Gradin, a civil engineer from Salvador, maintains the same visionary confidence that led him to establish industrial technology company GranBio in 2011. As a fully Brazilian company, GranBio devises solutions to transform biomass into renewable products, such as second-generation biofuels and biochemicals, and renewable materials from cellulose carbon.

Over 11 years, GranBio has been a technological early-mover: the company now holds more than 300 patents and operates the first 2G ethanol plant in Brazil, in the state of Alagoas, with 100% proprietary technology, and three demonstrative plants at its research center in Thomaston, U.S. GranBio also developed a proprietary process for harvesting and preparing residual biomass (sugarcane straw) at scale (200 Kt/year), and filed patents for 11 varieties of Energia Vertix sugarcane, which are more effective in the generation of renewable energy and in the production of biofuels and biochemicals.

Bernardo Gradin holds an MBA from the Warton School of Business and a Master’s degree in International Politics from the University of Pennsylvania. He has developed his career in the engineering, construction and chemical industries, and is also a founding partner of GranEnergia, which operates in the oil and gas and multimodal logistics sectors; he is head of the Chemical and Advanced Materials Community of the World Economic Forum (WEF); is a member of the Superior Council for Innovation and Competitiveness of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp); and a leader in the Business Movement for Innovation (MEI) of the National Confederation of Industry (CNI). Also an education enthusiast, Gradin and his family run the Inspirare Institute, whose mission is to support innovations in entrepreneurial initiatives, public policies, programs, and investments that help improve education in Brazil.

In an interview with Indústria Verde, Gradin talks about his motivations as the leader of a company like GranBio. “The risks are high, but the result is worth it,” he says.

Indústria Verde – GranBio was founded with the purpose of changing the world for the better – creating solutions to transform biomass into biofuels, biochemicals and other renewable materials. What were the motivations for launching such a challenging project?

Bernardo Gradin – The main motivation was a sense of mission – mixed with business ambition – to accelerate the energy transition to a low-carbon economy based on Brazil’s comparative advantages. Brazil is a global agricultural powerhouse and has a large area for biomass production. Another key motivation has been the pleasure of pioneering innovation. Risks are high, but the sense of entrepreneurial achievement overcomes that.

IV – How is this innovative DNA of GranBio reflected in actions and products now, 11 years after its foundation?

BG – GranBio has filed more than 300 patents since its foundation, and continues to create innovative processes, inventions and know-how on a daily basis. GranBio’s DNA – our culture – is reflected in the restless and inventive attitude of its members; in accelerating good ideas to turn them into clean technologies and license them to the market on an industrial scale. For the past 11 years, we have learned that the greatest secret of innovation lies in the ability to cooperate effectively in the various stages, from research to development. An essential part of our DNA lies in the versatility and willingness to set up strategic alliances for the development of processes and products. We have more than 55 Joint Development Agreements (JDAs) with technology companies, national laboratories, research institutes, universities, and clients. The main attribute for innovating is willingness to cooperate efficiently.

IV – How is GranBio intrinsically Brazilian? Where does the biomass used by the company come from?

BG – The equity, shareholders, headquarters, founders, and the first industrial plant are Brazilian, but we became an international company once we set up our industrial process research center in Atlanta, U.S., and due to the patents we file globally. The business model of BioFlex – Biorefinarias Flexíveis was designed using Brazilian biomass, agricultural waste that does not compete with food production. It is clear that GranBio has a global position and can license its technology anywhere in the world with virtually any type of biomass – but the strategy of starting in Brazil involved our agricultural attributes and its residues going to waste. The biomass used in the BioFlex I plant in Alagoas is post-harvest sugarcane straw, but we have already tested more than 30 varieties of biomass as part of long campaigns at our research center in Thomaston, U.S.

IV – As a champion of sustainability, what pathways does GranBio see for the Brazilian industrial sector in terms of inspiration, innovation and best use of the country’s biomass?

BG – Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse, and has the advantage of relying on a clean energy mix. We are naturally poised to spearhead the energy transition as a country with a significant global impact. Many leading Brazilian companies are now following the steps of GranBio in elevating biomass as a source of clean energy – these include, for instance, companies in the ethanol, pulp and paper and energy sectors.

IV – How can we contribute as an industry, as society and consumers to a more sustainable future?

BG – The industrial sector has the power to lead the energy transition to a low-carbon economy. As a society and consumers, we could be mindful of our day-to-day actions: consuming sustainable products; and demanding – as citizens, shareholders, voters and consumers – that merchants, manufacturers, congressmen, and mayors commit to and report on their actions and consequences for a more sustainable future.

IV – The Inspirare Institute intends to spark innovations in entrepreneurial initiatives, public policies, programs, and investments that help improve education in Brazil. Could you speak a few words about this?

BG – The Inspirare Institute supports innovation on the public and private fronts of education in Brazil. We foster partnerships with other institutes for the creation and dissemination of digital tools, websites, advocacy, and entrepreneurial initiatives. We invest seed capital* in more than 25 innovative initiatives or enterprises in the education sector, which is facing deficits in Brazil.

* Seed capital – also known as seed money and seed funding – is a type of investment made in startup companies, with, in some cases, nascent ideas.