When a younger colleague started rapping to a hip-hop beat about an organic compound used in plastic polymers, Michael Massa decided to postpone his retirement. Massa, a chemical engineer and vice president of commercial development for Koch Technology Solutions (KTS), had planned to end his four-decade career in July. But that was before he took charge of KTS’s partnership with Ioniqa Technologies, a Dutch clean-tech startup.
“I’m having too much fun working with a bunch of 20- and 30-year-olds who are fired up about what they’re doing to retire,” Massa said.
KTS and Ioniqa joined forces last year to launch an advanced technology for recycling polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, a polyester used in soft drink bottles and other plastic containers. Their success owes as much to the culture alignment between the two companies as to their technical strengths. It’s a partnership based on openness, trust and laughs over beers at the end of a fruitful day — like that night organic chemistry met hip-hop at dinner.
When KTS and Ioniqa release their solution, it will be the first of its kind offered at a commercial scale, providing a much-needed remedy for the growing volume of unrecycled plastic around the world.
“We’ve created a circular solution,” said Tonnis Hooghoudt, Ioniqa’s founder and CEO. “We can use waste as a starting point and produce the same raw materials that currently are made from oil.”
After 12 years of development, Ioniqa knew they had a winning technology, but the small company couldn’t scale up to processing 50 kilotons annually by itself. “We needed an engineering partner with experience and expertise, someone with a licensing strategy and a network in the industry,” said Maarten Stolk, a business developer at Ioniqa.
In late 2021, Ioniqa reached out to Koch Engineered Solutions, who put them in contact with its licensing arm, the United Kingdom-headquartered KTS. The new tech proved to be exactly what KTS wanted: a recipe for making high-quality PET from postconsumer plastic that was cheaper than existing methods.
“There’s a lot of excitement about sustainable technologies,” said Adam Sackett, president of KTS. “But we believe that these solutions should be able to compete with traditional manufacturing methods.”
The companies’ technical capabilities were obviously perfect complements. Ioniqa’s researchers could fine-tune the chemistry, and KTS’s engineers would execute it at scale. “The problems are slightly different with every process,” Sackett said. “But we’re very familiar with the operations and equipment that Ioniqa needs to be successful.”
As the leaders got to know each other, they discovered something even more critical for success: a culture fit.
“We were quite picky about who we would work with, because it’s not only about money,” Hooghoudt said. “With KTS, we spoke the same language in terms of what we wanted to achieve and how we wanted to cooperate.”
The companies’ most obvious shared traits are a straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get communication style and an adherence to mutual respect. KTS calls it “Principle Based Management (PBM),” a business philosophy and framework designed in part to empower employees. From the lab bench to the boardroom, KTS has been open with its expectations, suggestions and feedback, and Ioniqa has followed suit. The Ioniqa staff also has made a real effort to learn and understand how PBM influences day-to-day operations and, among other things, promotes civility, progress, fulfillment and business success.
“I’ve worked for companies that will trot out a program of a month that everyone is suddenly expected to focus on,” Massa said. “PBM is not a program du jour. It’s a culture that covers every aspect of the business. They’re new to PBM, but we’ve seen that Ioniqa is looking at things the same way.”
The cultural compatibility has been crucial as the companies launch what is essentially a new business, not only honing the technology but making all the decisions involved in taking a product to market. “In some cases, we know more; in others KTS have more inroads,” Hooghoudt said. “But it’s amazing, the integration between the two organizations.”
Leaders from both companies meet regularly on a joint steering committee to stay aligned on the big picture and remove any obstacles their employees face. The committee keeps up to date on each technical project and guides the approach to marketing, roll-out and other commercial concerns.
“Anything we achieve will be based on the capabilities and expertise of both parties,” Sackett said.
They had a model in the technical teams, which have been working together seamlessly since the beginning of the partnership — even separated as they were by the North Sea.
The effect has been to turbocharge bringing the technology to market. Although the teams are still optimizing the energy consumption, as it stands now, switching from traditional PET production to Ioniqa’s process would cut a plant’s carbon footprint significantly — and save money in the process. The companies plan to begin licensing to polyester manufacturers within the next year.
Hooghoudt, looking back over almost 12 months of productive collaboration, said he’s very pleased with the choice to partner with KTS.
“I hope the feeling is mutual,” he added.