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[Interview with] - Solenne Brouard

27 June 2024 Portrait
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Solenne Brouard Gaillot, CEO North America of Deltalys, tells us about her passion for entrepreneurship, Quebec and environmental technologies.

Founder of Polystyvert, a pioneering plastics recycling company, Solenne Brouard Gaillot, who graduated from Rennes School of Business in 2004, tells us all about the incredible entrepreneurial adventure she has been on for 12 years: from patent research to the development of the first of the company’s factories. Along the way, she gives us her advice on doing business in Quebec and her vision of the clean energy and technology market. In March 2024, she embarked on a new challenge: helping Deltalys, a French biogas pioneer, to conquer the American market.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I studied for two years at the Rennes School of Business, followed by a gap year at the PSA plant, south of Rennes. I went to Quebec for my final year as an exchange student with the University of Sherbrooke. That was 21 years ago and I haven't left this country since! It's worth remembering that the IT bubble had just burst and the job prospects in France weren't promising. So, I started my career with Bombardier in Quebec and worked in aeronautics until 2011, when I founded Polystyvert.

Polystyvert is a plastic recycling company. We have developed innovative technology to recycle styrenic plastics in a closed loop process. Initially, we only recycled polystyrene (PS), but we then extended our technology to ABS, a thermoplastic polymer used in Lego bricks and telephone casings. This diversification was a game changer for Polystyvert, which is now valued at 38 million Canadian dollars (26 million euros).

How did your desire for entrepreneurship come about?

Contrary to what you might think, I never felt secure in a big company. I felt that I lacked control over my work and was dependent on decisions taken far above me. I realised that I would have to wait many years to reach the level of responsibility that interested me. So, I decided to become an entrepreneur in the field I was passionate about: protecting the environment.

The birth of Polystyvert was an incredible gamble. Can you tell us about it?

"15 years ago, everyone was talking about the challenge of recycling plastics, but very little was actually being done. I did a lot of research into polystyrene to find out why it wasn't being recycled. It turned out to be very difficult to purify. Only SONY had seriously tackled this technical challenge to recycle its electronics packaging, but the economic crisis in Japan put an end to the trials and the patent fell back into the public domain."

In 2011, I decided to resume this research with the help of a chemist. I obtained an initial grant of 13,000 Canadian dollars from the government corporation that manages recovery and recycling in Quebec. While the initial technical study led to a dead end, the market study revealed a genuine market demand. So, I put together a business plan that enabled me this time to raise nearly 1 million dollars from both Quebec and the federal government, enough to resume the technical study. In the end, it was Professor Bruno Pollet from the Université du Québec in Trois-Rivières who enabled us to come up with a patentable solution. Thanks to this patent, I was able to raise €5 million from Anges Québec and pave the way for prototyping and a first factory: Polystyvert was born.

What lessons have you learnt from these 12 years with Polystyvert?

What we do is important, but how we present it is even more so. It is crucial to have a communications strategy that is not only customer-focused, but also aimed at our investors, our employees and all our stakeholders.

"A successful business plan is based on the effective and rapid resolution of a problem, or 'pain point', for customers capable of financing ambitious objectives." Targeting customers with strong economic potential is essential to the long-term success of the company.

However, care must be taken to find the right mix of grants, loans and equity to secure the finance that will take the business forward without losing control. It is better to pay a lot of money to a private lawyer who will look after your interests and help you sign a good agreement.

Generally speaking, I think it's essential to recruit high-calibre people who share our values, even if that means a higher salary. Hiring the wrong person can be very costly in the long run. For my part, I've surrounded myself with a very competent CTO and CFO who have enabled us to achieve our objectives more quickly and more successfully.

How did you feel about leaving the company?

After polystyrene, Polystyvert expanded into ABS, a plastic used in Lego bricks and phone covers. This was a major change that made the company profitable. We carried out a round of financing to prepare for the construction of a large factory. This gave me the unexpected opportunity to sell my shares, and I took it.

A good opportunity to sell your shares doesn't come along every day. Even if you're not yet where you want to be, but you've come a long way, be grateful and seize the opportunity to explore new horizons.

What are your new projects?

I recently met Charly Germain, the founder of Deltalys, a French company that specialises in biogas purification. Building on its growth in the European market, Deltalys decided to tackle North America, starting with Quebec. He then asked me to take up the position of CEO North America to help Deltalys establish itself on the other side of the Atlantic. I accepted this mission with enthusiasm because it is perfectly in line with my convictions and values.

I firmly believe that the energy sector is the one where we can have the greatest impact on protecting the environment, given that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from this sector. Biogas makes a direct contribution to reducing these emissions, and for me it's crucial that we do something about it.

What's more, the price of gas is rising sharply, which is extremely motivating in a sector where customers are in high demand. This growth will enable us to create jobs and promote sustainable economic development.

"The alliance between the economy and ecology has always been a priority for me, and I'm delighted to be able to continue working in this direction with Deltalys."

The challenge ahead of me is particularly stimulating. I'm starting from scratch, alone with a local consultant and a huge market to conquer. But that's what I love about my job: You have to stand up for what you believe in! I'm already dreaming about the first factory, its inauguration, the service we're going to provide and the growth we're going to create. 

What are the challenges and opportunities facing players in the circular economy?

A major challenge for clean technologies is to become economically competitive with technologies based on oil or other fossil fuels that have been optimised for decades, or even centuries. The transition between these two types of technology is costly, making it difficult for the major players to invest in this area. Although there are already government incentives and regulations in place, they are not enough. There is strong resistance from some players to changing their model.

Recycling, in particular, is expensive for a number of reasons. The logistical costs of transporting waste to recycling centres are high. The wide variety of materials makes sorting difficult. Not to mention the fact that many people do not seriously sort their waste because they have not been made sufficiently aware of all the things that can now be sorted.

The impact of climate change is also largely underestimated. Many players do not realise the scale of the challenges that lie ahead, and the geopolitical tensions caused by globalisation relegate the management of climate change to the background.

The sector does, however, present some exciting opportunities. The rise in the price of gas has accelerated the energy transition, notably by abandoning gas as a fossil fuel.

Asia has a strong demand for clean technologies, which is stimulating the development of this economic sector. But it is mainly in Europe that they are emerging. European regulations are encouraging local players to find more sustainable solutions, contributing to the rise of clean technologies. The export of these technologies to Asia and America represents a source of growth on which Europe should rely more.

Clean technologies are also a powerful lever for market differentiation. At equivalent prices, consumers prefer to buy sustainable products. There is even a market for top-of-the-range products with ecological features. Adopting sustainable practices is also a real asset for your employer brand.

Why do business in Canada rather than in France?

In Canada, and more widely in North America, the culture of entrepreneurship is much more prevalent than in France. It is valued to take risks to pursue your dreams, to experiment and even to make mistakes and failures. This mentality is also accompanied by greater flexibility in the labour market. Although it's easier to lose your job, it's also easier to find a new one.

However, there are some important differences to consider. For example, the pace of work. In Canada, the law allows only two weeks' paid holiday a year, and employees earn extra weeks depending on how long they have been with the company. On the other hand, few people work after 5 p.m., and the days are less hectic than in France.

Still on the cultural front, Quebecers tend to be on first-name terms with everyone. The French may interpret this as a form of closeness or friendliness. However, while this may reflect a certain social fluidity and a hierarchy that is more horizontal than in France, don't be misled into thinking that it necessarily implies a close relationship. It's up to you to prove your motivation and prove yourself!

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