Leading the ripples of change

Adrian Black and Sonichem's executive team

Leading the ripples of change: Adrian Black’s journey from coding to cleantech

Sonichem was founded in 2007, and the company has been riding the waves of innovation and sustainability ever since. We have successfully overcome typical growth challenges, from building a dedicated operations team, making our technology scalable and developing a functioning pilot plant, and we are now seeking further investment, including a crowdfunding campaign on Seedrs,  to help make our future ambitions a reality. To the average investor, Sonichem’s success may appear to have been forged in science; after all, our ultrasonic biorefinery technology is what underlies our ability to convert forestry by-products into valuable bio-based chemicals. However, the significant commercial progress that we have experienced would not have been possible without the venture expertise and entrepreneurial acumen of our CEO, Adrian Black. This Q&A offers a glimpse into Adrian’s experience in building companies from the ground up, his approach to raising investments and overcoming challenges, and the past failures and successes that have taught him all about scaling a successful business.

Introducing Adrian Black, CEO of Sonichem

Adrian Black

I am the CEO of Sonichem, so my role is to fund and commercialise the brilliant technology and the team behind the company. However, I think that it is crucial to point out that I am not a chemist or a biologist. My career path has landed me in the clean tech industry, but I am a computer scientist and software developer at my core.

Career progression from software development to sustainable technology

I am extremely passionate about innovative technologies, and how they can make a difference in the world. Although I do not have any formal training in engineering or science, I have always been drawn to organisations in the STEM industry, whether it has been automotive businesses, online sales schemes or clean tech companies. Throughout the many stages of my career, I have worked on shaping my commercial skills, and business development is all about progression – building new enterprises, forming teams, raising investment and driving progression – no matter what field you find yourself in.

 

I took my first steps into commerce in the fast-paced automotive sector, where I designed systems and analysed data. The emergence of the internet was causing a major paradigm shift in the business world at the time, and I quickly accepted a CTO position at an online car dealership. Establishing an internet start-up at the very beginning of the technology boom was an extremely risky business move; although the company experienced some initial success – and was registered on the tertiary stock exchange – it unfortunately failed when the ‘dot-com’ bubble burst. This was a valuable learning experience, as the founder of the business abandoned ship at this point, leaving me to build it back up from the ground. It was at this stage in my career that I discovered a love for problem-solving and entrepreneurship, and this inspired me to pursue an MBA to deepen my knowledge in business strategy and finance, and hone my skills in critical thinking and leadership.

 

After a few more endeavours in the automotive sector – including consultancy projects for eBay motors and Autotrader, and a full-time position working for the Daily Mail Group to set up an online car sales platform – I was drawn to a completely different passion: tackling fraud. Mentored by one of the board directors of the Daily Mail Group at the time, I began to work with the police and security services to establish fraud forums in the major online sectors, and I was one of the founding members of an organisation called VSTAG. This planted the seed of an idea in my head, which grew to become a legal technology company, NorthRow, that is dedicated to developing systems to automatically detect financial, business and advertising scams. I successfully scaled the business to a Series A+ investment round as CEO, before deciding that it was time to move on to a new venture.

 

It was at this point that my previous mentor, David Dutton – who by now was Executive Chairman of Bio-Sep (now Sonichem) – asked me to join the company to help turn it from what was essentially a research and development project into an investable business. Although I only had a very superficial understanding of the technology and science behind Sonichem at the time, I could envision how it could be made to work at scale. In addition, fighting the global climate problem was an issue that was far greater than fraud, and I felt like the sustainable technology sector had huge potential for expansion. I therefore accepted the position, and that was how I became CEO of a clean tech company!

What, in your opinion, is the key to a successful technology business?

A successful technology business requires a skilled and knowledgeable team, a solid and well-thought-out business plan, and a flexible and forward-thinking approach that enables continuous development and progress. However, no company has ever risen to success without having to navigate difficult waters along the way, so I believe that resilience is another key aspect of success. As CEO of Sonichem, I am constantly refining my own knowledge, and equipping myself with the tools needed to navigate the dynamic challenges of the business world.

Looking back on Sonichem’s journey, what milestones stand out for you?

I was initially introduced to Sonichem at the start of 2021 and, although the company was backed by over 10 years of research, commercial progress was slow. It had not yet received any external investments, its first-generation pilot plant was not yet fully functioning, and it was even lacking a complete team of full-time employees. My goals were to establish a committed and permanent team, enhance the company’s infrastructure and begin to raise investments.

 

The first step in Sonichem’s growth was taking over the property that housed our pilot plant, and expanding it into a fully-equipped laboratory to carry out our downstream processing protocols in house. We also hired a complete team of chemists to improve the design of our ultrasonic reactor, and to refine and scale up the technology. Since then, we have applied for new patents for our updated technology, and even undergone a complete rebrand! A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to make the business investment-ready, and we have already raised a significant amount of money – through venture capitalists, angel investors, projects, grants and consortiums – to provide our team with the resources they need. These are all milestones that have made Sonichem what it is today.

How can crowdfunding lead to collective growth at Sonichem?

Sonichem has already grown in leaps and bounds, but the purpose of our new crowdfunding initiative – which we are running through the investment platform Seedrs – is to allow us to continue to operate our pilot plant, and to fund the next stage in the company’s development. We are currently designing a large-scale commercial biorefinery, which will allow us to produce up to 15,000 tonnes per year of bio-based chemicals from forestry waste, making a significant difference in the clean tech sector. Most importantly, crowdfunding is a way for us to expand our reach and accessibility, allowing smaller investors who are interested in contributing to our environmental efforts to participate on the same terms as larger corporations. The global transition towards sustainability is creating vast opportunities in the chemicals industry, and we are well positioned to make a significant impact – and to offer possibilities for substantial investment returns to stakeholders.

Looking to the future, how can Sonichem capitalise on this forward momentum and solidify its position as a leader in the clean tech industry?

Sonichem is in a very good place to experience continued success: the forestry industry is expanding as demand for sustainable building materials soars, so the availability of byproducts such as woodchips and sawdust is rising. While there are other avenues that rely on these waste products – including cement production and the burning of pellets for energy – consumers are increasingly aware of the detrimental environmental effects of these activities, and companies are looking for more sustainable ways to use these readily available resources. At Sonichem, we have developed a clean and scalable way to take these low-grade byproducts and turn them into high-value bio-based chemicals. In addition, our technology is highly flexible, and it has the potential to make an impact in a wide range of industries that produce biomass, including the palm oil and sugar cane sectors. We have already been granted patents in 10 different markets around the world, demonstrating our potential for expansion.

 

All of these factors point to Sonichem’s growing potential to make waves in the chemicals industry, and our current crowdfunding initiative is the first step in our plan for the future, as we seek funding to drive our production of green chemicals and reduce society’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Hiring a Project Manager

Project Manager Role

We are looking for an experienced Project Manager to be responsible for leading project management for the design and delivery for our First-Of-A-Kind Commercial Plant (FOAK CP) and projects involving the expansion and development of the Sonichem (previously known as Bio-Sep) Pilot Plant Facility located at Melton Mowbray.

Reporting to the Principal Process Engineer, you will provide the technical leadership for project management and be the focal point for all engineering projects.

Sonichem (previously Bio-Sep) is a clean technology company based in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. We have developed a patented sustainable, ultrasonic biorefining technology that transforms woody biomass, the by-product of forestry and agriculture, into high value bio-based chemicals with a wide range of applications. This is a fantastic opportunity to join an organisation with ambitious plans in the sustainable biorefining sector.

Why Sonichem (previously Bio-Sep)

Innovation: Be a part of cutting-edge technology development that is shaping the future of sustainable bio-based chemicals.

Growth Opportunities: Join a team with ambitious plans in the sustainable biorefining sector.

Supportive Environment: Collaborate with an enthusiastic, diverse and skilled team committed to excellence.

Bio-Sep is not just a company; it’s a vision for a greener future. If you are a dynamic, adaptable, analytical thinker with a passion for driving projects to success, we want to hear from you.

Key Responsibilities

Work closely with the Principal Process Engineer to ensure the highest calibre of technical and commercial delivery on all projects, and to help and support the Principal Process Engineer as required.

Develop and implement an in-house Engineering Project Management System based on best practices and industry standards.

Develop a project excellence model to ensure consistently excellent project delivery for the company including project management based KPIs.

Act as the focal point and lead with Engineering Contractors, Original Equipment Manufacturers, Engineering Design Contractors and EPCs.

Support the Principal Process Engineer in the pre-feasibilty and concept phase of the FOAK CP and preparation of the documentation suite for tendering the FEED and EPC.

Be the key lead in determining the tender/contract strategy for the EPC contracting award for the FOAK CP including the scoring and evaluation of submitted bids.

Develop, agree and approve the project management strategy with the potential EPC Company for delivery of the FOAK CP. Ensuring the supply chain is fit for purpose, selection of competent and reliable suppliers, elimination of single points of failure and systems are in place to monitor and record supplier performance.

Be the project management lead for grant funded collaborative R&D projects ensuring compliance to funding requirements.

Ensure company financial controls are adhered to across all sanctioned projects.

Ensure project deliverables are completed and presented in a professional manner, to include quality of information, written, drawn and verbal.

Support the executive team in research grant applications.

Support the CEO in business and investment project management activities.

Requirements

You will be qualified in a relevant Engineering and/or Project Management discipline.

Professional qualification with relevant engineering and/or project management bod

Circa 10 years’ experience gained in an engineering project management environment, ideally with an EPC or projects department in the process industry.

Competent and experienced in using MS Project.

Experience of managing grant-funded projects and their reporting requirements is desirable.

This role allows for a hybrid working arrangement.

Please apply via our Linkedin application process or send an email with your CV and a cover letter to info@sonichem.com

New Joint Industry Project with iCAST and the National Composite Centre

Bio-Sep Biochemicals and Biorefinery

Bio-Sep (now Sonichem) Launches new Joint Industry Project to Fuel the  Green Revolution

Bio-Sep (now Sonichem) has begun an exciting joint industry project which aims to develop renewable, bio-sourced alternatives for existing petrochemically-derived platform chemicals, ultimately helping to meet the worldwide demand for clean technologies and contributing to net-zero carbon goals. The new venture is in collaboration with the Innovation Centre for Applied Sustainable Technologies (iCAST), which includes prestigious institutions such as the University of Bath and the National Composites Centre (NCC).

 

Bio-Sep specialises in the conversion of non-food, lignocellulosic biomass generated by agriculture and forestry into high-value biochemicals, using its unique, low energy biorefinery process. It produces a novel, non-sulfonated lignin with enhanced reactivity and low molecular weight. This new product and exclusive separation process have great potential for the large-scale manufacture of sustainable biochemical substitutes that can be used in multiple commercial applications, such as the composites and construction industries. The joint industry project aims to extensively test the properties and performance of the products, both as part of biobased composites and as a cement admixture.

Dr Andrew West, Chief Chemist at Sonichem (previously Bio-Sep), explained: “This interdisciplinary R&D project will allow us to develop and demonstrate potential applications for our non-sulfonated lignin and biorefinery process. We are very much looking forward to working with our valuable partners within iCAST, and benefiting from their global expertise and extensive knowledge in bio-based materials chemistry and composites manufacture.”

Professor Matthew Davidson, iCAST Director, added: “We are delighted to be working with Bio-Sep to accelerate innovation in this important area. It is exactly the sort of collaboration that iCAST was designed to undertake, and one of the first of around 50 joint industry projects that we plan to deliver in the next two years. By bringing together iCAST’s expertise in materials and manufacturing with innovative companies such as Bio-Sep, we aim to accelerate the deployment of sustainable technologies into commercial applications. This will in turn contribute to achieving the UK’s net zero and Clean Growth targets.”

Tim Young, Head of Sustainability at the National Composites Centre, said: “Being part of the Bio-Sep project will enable us to assess the suitability of a highly innovative, low carbon, composite material. The NCC team looks forward to assessing the feasibility of the material for use in industrial applications using our design, manufacturing and quality assessment expertise alongside our customer network, to help the material’s route to market. We are delighted to support Bio-Sep with its exciting sustainability offering for the composites marketplace, and to be part of the consortium of partners, pooling expertise and knowledge in this growing specialist area.”

Early results of the project are encouraging, suggesting that in the near future, composites and construction industries could make use of a low-carbon, renewable material, further displacing petrochemicals and improving their operational sustainability.

About iCAST

The Innovation Centre for Applied Sustainable Technologies (iCAST) is a unique collaboration set to deliver agile innovation in green, sustainable technologies. Bringing together experts across all the innovation stages, it focusses on bringing together industry and academia to translate discoveries into commercial application. iCAST is a partnership between the universities of Bath and Oxford, the High-Value Manufacturing Catapults (National Composites Centre and Centre for Process Innovation), the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership and SETsquared. This project is funded by Research England. icast.org.uk / @icastinfo

About the National Composites Centre

The National Composites Centre (NCC) is the UK’s world-leading composite research and development facility; where innovators come when they need to make things lighter, stronger, smarter and more sustainable. Its key focus areas are Composites, Digital Engineering, Hydrogen and Sustainability. With access to ‘beyond’ state-of-the-art technology and the best composites engineering capabilities in the world, the NCC collaborates with customers to solve the most complex engineering challenges of our time.  Part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the NCC works across all manufacturing sectors and has forged strong links with aerospace, energy, defence, space, construction, infrastructure, auto, rail, marine and biomedical. It works with organisations across the board from micro enterprises and SMEs to disrupters, the supply chain and OEMs, providing businesses with a de-risked environment to design, develop, test and scale their ideas and get them to market fast. For more information visit https://www.nccuk.com/