Pictet North America Advisors SA

Sustainable way to recycle advanced materials

Fairmat has invented a new, more sustainable way to recycle advanced materials

Benjamin Saada set up a company that used carbon- fibre composites. Then he saw how the materials were disposed of at the end of their life cycle and he vowed to find a better solution.

At heart, Benjamin Saada is still an engineer. The entrepreneur studied at Mines ParisTech, one of France’s oldest universities, which was originally established in 1783 to – as the name might suggest – train up the future leaders of the country’s mining industry. In 2011, soon after graduating, Benjamin launched his first company, Expliseat, which developed and still manufactures the TiSeat, the world’s lightest aircraft seat, using carbon-fibre composites. Today, he runs Fairmat, the venture he set up in 2020 to revolutionise the use of second-generation advanced materials in manufacturing. Yet for all his entrepreneurial prowess, having founded two highly successful businesses in less than 15 years, Benjamin is still most excited when he’s talking about the problem-solving abilities of the engineer. At one point in our interview, for instance, he describes carbon-fibre composites as “one of the best things that human engineering has ever invented”. Later, speaking about Dassault, one of Fairmat’s clients, he notes: “From an engineering point of view, it is a company producing truly one of the most exciting products.” He might be a founder and CEO, but deep down, he says, “I’m still an engineer.”

Fairmat was itself born out of his in-built passion for finding solutions. “The idea for Fairmat really came from the expertise and knowledge I developed around advanced materials and the environment,” he explains. It was while he was running Expliseat, which was itself a “very big consumer of advanced mate- rials”, that Benjamin noticed that at the end of their life cycle, the carbon-fibre materials were simply incinerated or thrown into landfill. At the same time, he kept seeing “shocking” pictures in the press of “graveyards for aircraft and wind turbines”, dumping grounds for parts that simply could not be recycled efficiently. “I was convinced,” Benjamin recalls, “that there was something better we could do.”

That, however, is easier said than done. Carbon fibre as a material was developed specifically to resist chemicals and high temperatures; indeed, that’s what makes it such a perfectly suitable material from which to manufacture planes and wind turbines. Traditional recycling techniques, which generally involve melting a material down or attacking it with chemicals, simply don’t work. “There was a strong need for innovation,” says Benjamin. “There was also a place to become a leading company in that field, and to try to develop a new solution.”

Fairmat has invented that solution. “We have robots with a lot of sensors which manipulate knives and cut very, very slim chips of only a few microns of thickness into the product,” Benjamin explains. If that doesn’t sound complex enough, the cuts all have to be totally parallel, otherwise the fibres inside the chips will be cut and the mechanical performance lost. “And we have to go very fast,” Benjamin adds, “because we deal with trillions of chips per year.” Needless to say, it’s an incredibly technically challenging process, but it allows Fairmat to keep intact the fibres and resin that make carbon fibre so strong; this in turn means the end product has a higher mechanical performance than with traditional recycling techniques.

That end product is a range of sustainable, high-performing and customisable materials, which manufacturers of all sizes and industries can then purchase and use in their products. In April this year, for instance, Fairmat announced a partnership with the sports- goods company Decathlon, which will see the latter incorporating sustainable Fairmat materials into its Padel rackets starting in 2024. In fact, Benjamin says that his company currently has “a very strong focus on sporting goods,” partly because lots of the products are relatively straightforward to manufacture from so-called “carbon plates”, but also because “the sporting goods industry is very focused on environmental-impact reduction.”

The collaboration with Decathlon also demonstrates a point that Benjamin is keen to stress– Fairmat is more than simply a recycling partner for manufacturers; it is also a manufacturing partner. This happened more or less organically, as many of the companies Fairmat was working with had never actually used carbon-fibre materials before. “So we started to bring them manufacturing solutions,” he explains. Fairmat wouldn’t simply provide the materials; it would work with these companies during their design and development processes. “And then we understood that, actually, we were creating a full new material ecosystem based on second-generation materials.”

We were creating a full new material ecosystem based on second-generation materials.

Today, three years on from its launch, Fairmat is soaring. It is working with over 40 factories across Europe and has secured 40% of European carbon-fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) industrial waste. In late 2022, the firm closed a EUR34m Series A funding round. It has signed contracts with 15 companies to collect their carbon-fibre waste, including Hexcel, Siemens Gamesa and Dassault Aviation. It might seem a relatively modest number, but these 15 companies represent more than 35% of the continent’s carbon-fibre composite waste.

Benjamin isn’t stopping there, though. He sees Fairmat as “a worldwide, multi-local ecosystem”, meaning in essence “deployability everywhere”. He wants Fairmat customers to be able to have this solution on offer any- where around the globe they decide to manufacture now and in the future. According to Benjamin’s overarching growth strategy, his focus in 2023 is North America, and then Fairmat’s attention will pivot to Asia in 2024. “We need to be everywhere,” he says.

It might not be entirely surprising, then, to hear that one of the company’s core values is determination. For Benjamin personally, this is driven in part by his family. He has a daughter who is less than a year old. “There are things I can do, like providing her with good education,” he says, “but the air she will breathe is the air she will breathe.” Along with this, the founder is broadly optimistic. Increasingly, he says, positive solutions are coming to market, thanks to “forward-thinking investors, impact investors and green investors”. At the same time, greenwashing is becoming less common, as both business leaders and consumers become savvier and more educated. For his part, every week, he meets a leader of industry who displays a genuine determination to improve their environmental impact.

When it comes to Fairmat, the engineer-entrepreneur is even more optimistic. He feels that Fairmat has strong tailwinds in the form of two macrotrends. “Over the next 50 years, we’ll need to recycle more than USD 10 trillion worth of materials, and we’ll need to sell hundreds of billions of dollars every year,” he says. “We really want to establish Fairmat as a significant player between these two markets.”

Taking a step further back, Benjamin compares this future to a potential new industrial revolution. The first industrial revolution was built on metal machines and steam power, he notes. Then came fuel, in the form of gas and petrol. “If we are able to provide a full ecosystem of second-generation materials, and this becomes used by everyone, so that the ecosystem grows and grows, it could be a new revolution,” he says. But there is one big difference that would set this new revolution apart: “We are here to serve the planet first.”