BioSolutions transforms tequila industry’s unwanted waste into desirable bioplastics
Tequila is one of Mexico’s most iconic and successful exports. The growing popularity of cocktails, coupled with a COVID-induced shift towards online alcohol purchases, has seen the global tequila market grow to more than USD 12 billion. This figure is expected to double in the next decade as tequila outpaces rival drinks such as malt whiskey and cognac.
The sweet, earthy liquor is famously made from the heart of the agave plant, a spiny succulent native to Mexico’s southwestern hills. What few realize, however, is that most producers throw away or burn agave leaves and stalks – which are not used to make tequila – after the distillation process. According to the Tequila Regulatory Council, for each liter of tequila produced, twelve liters of organic waste is discarded.
Ana Laborde, a businesswoman from Mexico, discovered the wasteful practices behind tequila production while studying for her MSc in Business Innovation at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, or TEC. A keen environmentalist – and aware that Mexico City’s congress was drafting a bill to ban single-use plastics – she thought that producing bioplastic bags could be a successful and sustainable business opportunity.
Ana began researching biodegradable alternatives to the ubiquitous plastic bag. However, she grew concerned that many of the common sources of bioplastics, such as corn and potatoes, might better be used as food. Mentioning this to her cousin, who worked in the tequila industry, Ana learned about the vast amounts of unused agave leaves – approximately 400,000 tons each year – created during the liquor’s production. If plant fibers could be easily extracted from agave leaves, she reasoned, this unwanted by-product might be an untapped source of bioplastic.
Excited by the idea, Ana developed a business plan and assembled a research team of chemical engineers from her university. Her objective was to develop a process to extract cellulose, the molecule that gives plants their structural integrity, from agave leaves. The extracted cellulose could then be used to make biodegradable plastic bags, containers and cleaning supplies. With technical assistance from Mexico’s Center for the Investigation of Applied Chemistry, the team successfully developed this process. Realizing that this innovation was new to Mexico, Ana decided to request a patent.
As a member of the TEC community, Ana had access to its Technology Transfer Office, which offered information on the patenting process. They also put her in contact with a Mexico City law firm with a multidisciplinary team to help her draft the patent request. During the patenting process, authorities at the Mexican Patent Office told her that she could not protect both the production process and the product itself. In response, the Technology Transfer Office and the law firm both advised her to patent the final product. This was mainly because manufacturing methods can be difficult to protect; small alterations to the production process by a competitor, for example, would allow them to avoid infringing Ana’s intellectual property rights. Patenting the product would also prevent competitors from manufacturing the same product through a different process.
While developing her project, Ana won first prize in a green entrepreneurship contest co-organized by her university. The prize money allowed her to pay for the services provided by Center for the Investigation of Applied Chemistry as well as lab access and the law firm’s services. Ana considers this money to have been an important element in the success of her venture, which marked its first major milestone in 2010 with the establishment of a company, BioSolutions, to capitalize on its bioplastics innovation.
Other awards soon followed. In 2012, BioSolutions was ranked as one of Mexico’s 10 most innovative companies by MIT’s Technology Review Magazine. That same year, Ana was awarded first place in the University of Texas’ annual Business Plan Competition and third place in an SME competition run by BizBarcelona. Ana herself was celebrated as an innovator by the Discovery Channel and the popular science magazine Quo.
Encouraged by this recognition and support, Ana applied for grants from the CONACYT Technological Innovation Fund, a public trust designed to support small companies, to allow her to expand BioSolutions and establish a pilot production plant in 2012. Ana considers herself lucky, as continued help from the TEC community made the application process easy. “Women need to know that, with proper assistance, the patenting process is not as hard as everyone believes,” she says. Ana maintains that understanding the requirements, likely timescales and possible outcomes of an application in advance can make the entire process easier to manage.
Nevertheless, those trying to protect their intellectual property will still likely face challenges. For Ana, who had business acumen but lacked technical and legal experience, one of the main barriers was the technical requirements of filing a patent: both understanding what needed to be presented and knowing how it should be drafted. Finding sufficient financial resources presented another major hurdle. “The main concern isn’t the cost of the application or the annuity payments,” she explains, “but having enough resources to hire a good legal firm that will be able to draft the request and avoid setbacks.”
Obstacles can remain even once the patenting process has been successfully navigated. For example, once Ana had a product ready for market and was able to produce it at a small scale, she was confronted with the reality that market was not ready. Partly this was because plastic bags were still legal in Mexico, and partly because BioSolutions, as Mexico’s first bioplastics manufacturer, needed to convince potential customers of the benefits of biodegradable plastic. Ana persevered, and in the years since BioSolutions has established strong links with plastic injection molding companies and manufacturers of homeware and promotional materials.
The value of multidisciplinary teams
BioSolutions’ flexibility has allowed it to expand its product line and customers over time. In 2019, it announced a collaboration with the Jose Cuervo tequila brand to for bars, restaurants and events across Mexico and the United States. BioSolutions is also producing bioplastic beer glasses for concert arenas and stadiums using waste from beer production, an opportunity which required Ana’s team to alter the manufacturing process. Ana is keen to expand her business in the United States as well as other countries in Latin America, but currently lacks the resources to apply for a patent in the USA. In the meantime, new intellectual property – such as altered manufacturing processes – are protected with trade secrets.
Looking back over the past decade, Ana believes that working in research gives women more opportunities to secure patents by providing easier access to professional scientific facilities and institutional support. She also thinks that innovation, and the protection of innovation, requires a multidisciplinary team including business, technical and legal experts. The results, as BioSolutions’ products show, are good for business and the planet – something we can all drink to.
This case study was produced as part of a WIPO Development and Intellectual Property Committee project on Increasing the Role of Women in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Encouraging Women in Developing Countries to Use the Intellectual Property System. Visit the Women in Innovation and Entrepreneurship webpage for more information about the project.