It all began at Europe’s largest summer school for climate innovation and entrepreneurship, Climate-KIC. Emmanuel Thiéry, a French student in entrepreneurship and graduate from the Pierre and Marie Curie University, and Mariana Bittencourt, a Brazilian architect and PhD student in economics and eco-innovations, met a group of students driven by an ambition to turn agricultural waste into something useful. They began by looking at their own consumption habits.

Being students, they drank a lot of coffee, and being an environmentally conscious Brazilian, Mariana was aware of the polluting effects of coffee waste.

The cherry’s coffee

Coffee is like a cherry, but the fruit part is often thrown away, as only the seed or coffee ground is considered to be valuable. The group worked on ways to make coffee production more sustainable, and to increase coffee farmer revenues, settling on pyrolysis. This process changes the chemical and

physical composition of organic matter through anaerobic thermochemical decomposition at high temperatures. It is one of the processes involved in the charring of wood.

They called their team Cophenol – mixing coffee with the compound phenol, commonly known as carbolic acid – and decamped to Brazil. After a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, they were able to fund research into transforming the thrown-away fruit into something useful.

A sustainable biorefinery process

In Brazil, Cophenol developed a sustainable biorefinery process that transforms coffee waste into valuable chemical products without causing further soil and water pollution or emitting greenhouse gases. The by-products biochar and bio-oil are both useful products for coffee farmers. Biochar, or organic charcoal (coal made for agriculture), can be used to improve soil productivity. Combined with other organic matter, it can also be used as a fertilizer, a combustible fuel, or to remove water pollution. Bio-oil can also be used as a substitute for petroleum-based substances.

Cophenol applied for the French Tech Ticket Global Startup competition for talented startups looking to ‘incubate’ their project in France. It was one of six winners, selected out of more than 700 applicants, to present their idea to President Francois Hollande.

They teamed up with chemical engineer Moussa Dicko and set up in Paris, where there is no coffee waste – but many possibilities. Their carbon-negative process can be used with any biomass product made from agricultural and forestry waste, and after some French Tech Ticket mentoring, the team changed their name to Biophenol.

The Biophenol team are currently working on oak bark offcuts, for which there are a large variety of potential uses, from cleaning industrial water by removing metals to reducing fertilizer needs.

Biophenol are currently working with oak loggers in the Centre-Val de Loire region of France on their first product: a resin which can be used as a wood adhesive.

If you’d like to know more about startups in France, click here to read the new Business France book about 35 success stories.

If you’d like to find out more about technology and startups in France, click here.