Mathieu Flamini: Arsenal's biochemical midfielder

By Tim Bowler & Russell Hotten
Business reporters, BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionClimate change "is the biggest problem of our time," says Arsenal's Mathieu Flamini

For years Arsenal midfielder and French international Mathieu Flamini kept a big secret. Another tabloid football scandal? Not quite.

Eight years ago he co-founded a company that he hopes will help save the planet - GF Biochemicals (GFB).

He has been telling the BBC about his involvement, something he kept secret even from his Arsenal teammates and others close to him.

GFB produces levulinic acid (LA), a chemical that has been identified by the US Department of Energy (DoE) as one of the 12 key molecules that could help unlock a "greener" world.

The DoE says these "building block chemicals" can be produced from sugars via biological or chemical conversions and they can then be subsequently converted to "high-value bio-based chemicals or materials".

Oil substitute

Levulinic acid is created from biomass such as grass or woodchips and can then be used in plastics, solvents, fuels and the pharmaceuticals industry - and crucially as a substitute for oil in all its forms.

image copyrightGF Biochemicals
image captionGFB has become the first firm to be able to manufacture levulinic acid on a commercial scale

"It will help with the diminution of the oxide carbon. This acid has strong potential because it reacts exactly like oil, which means it can substitute [for] oil," says Mr Flamini.

The key challenges that his company had to overcome, he says, was to lower the cost of production and to solve the problem of continuous production.

Now GFB has started producing it on an industrial scale. It says it is the first firm to have cracked this challenge, and by 2017 it hopes to be making some 10,000 tonnes a year.

£20bn market potential

media captionFootball star's biotechnology venture

It cost millions to develop and took years of research and testing, says the 32-year-old.

It is a market that could be worth an estimated £20bn and while it has the potential to make him very rich, he says this is not what has driven him.

Instead, the Corsica-born footballer says that climate change and how to respond to it has always been close to his heart. "It is the biggest problem of our time," he says.

It was when he moved to AC Milan in 2008, that Mr Flamini met his business partner, Pasquale Granata, and together they set up GF Biochemicals - GF standing for Granata-Flamini.

"At the time he [Pasquale] was already interested in the problem of climate change and we really wanted to do something. So after meeting with a scientist, together we developed this bio-technology."

They gathered around them a team of scientists and engineers, and have worked closely with the University of Pisa for seven years on perfecting the production of levulinic acid.

Levulinic acid's applications

image copyrightGF Biochemicals
image captionGF Biochemicals says levulinic acid can help solve a number of environmental problems caused by conventional plastics
  • Creating biodegradable plastics instead of the conventional plastics that often harm marine life
  • Green solvents and bio-based detergents
  • Clean-burning fuels and fuel components instead of more polluting fuels
  • Biofuels from biomass waste instead of from vegetable oils

The company argues that levulinic acid will prove to be an important building block for a decarbonized world, helping to replace fossil-based chemicals and reducing the carbon footprint of consumer products.

The company now directly employs 80 people, and 400 people indirectly. It has a production laboratory at Caserta, about a 30-minute drive from Naples, and offices in Milan and Holland.

It is also expanding.

This February, GFB bought Minnesota-based Segetis, the main US producer of levulinic acid, with the aim of developing its bioplastic technology.

GFB says this will "accelerate market entry for levulinic acid and its derivatives".

Football 'my priority'

"I am very lucky," says Mr Flamini. "For the day-to-day operation we have a very strong team on the field coming from a very big chemical company.

image copyrightGF Biochemicals
image captionMathieu Flamini and his business partner, Pasquale Granata (left)

"I am more focussed on the strategy of the company."

As for his own future, he is still concentrating on his midfield career - for the moment.

"I want to make something clear, my priority is football.

"But as you can imagine, a football player has other interests outside the pitch. And my interest is the bio-economy."

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