To say that Runa Haug Khoury, CEO of AION by Aker BioMarine, is passionate about her work is an understatement. She seems to play it down by saying that she loves commercial work and even, at one point, goes so far as to use the expression “customer-obsessed”. She also says she is not an activist, although she has been committed to sustainability long before that word was on everyone’s agenda. Perhaps that’s why Runa never uses the word fighter or warrior either, preferring instead to describe herself as a “lion mom” for both her three daughters and her team.
However, although her speech is calm and didactic, when you have the opportunity to talk to her, Runa gives off that passion, which seems innate in her. Passion for sustainability, for the circular plastic economy, and, of course, for the “aionistas”, the team that walks with her on the road to scaling commercial solutions to drive impact. And yes, she admits it, building all of this is her dream job.
Going all-in on sustainability
“I’m not quite sure why I made that choice”, she says when we ask why that big interest in sustainability. Curiously, she does it right after telling us that she did Business School in Norway, and then she went on to the London School of Economics to study Environmental Politics, back in 2004-2005, “before the environmental agenda was very broad in society”. But the talk goes on, and it appears the ocean link. “I grew up in the north of Norway, and my father also is a professor in marine biology”. Roots are important and hers are by the sea, or, as she told us, “by the shore”.
“Fishery was a very important way of living up north, so I have a very pragmatic and very respectful relationship with the ocean, the ocean industries”, she explains. “I’ve never been very activist, even though I worked in Ballona, but I have a very strong connection with the ocean industries and keeping nature as it has an intrinsic value, and it is something that we need to keep for the generations ahead as well”. And not just that, “the ability to harvest the ocean, we need to protect that opportunity also for future generations”, she adds.
A strong connection with the ocean industries but also with the preservation of nature, with those premises, it is not surprising that, as she tells us, she has always been working with “this link of new technology and environmental protection”. But that is not all. “I love commercial work”, Runa says, “I profoundly believe in scaling commercial solutions to drive impact”. The result of adding it all up? “When I was asked to take on AION in Aker it was like… it is definitely the dream job, yes, to build this kind of new commercial solution that will drive a lot of impact, it is really like a dream job for me”.
Let’s talk about plastic
And, for that, let’s stop for a moment. A woman committed to sustainability working for a… plastic company? But isn’t plastic used to make low-quality disposable products that end up polluting the oceans? Yes, that can be true, but it’s also true that, as Runa tells us, plastic is a lightweight, very functional, and, above all, recyclable material. “Plastic pollution is really bad. Plastic is in itself a good material”, she claims. So, maybe the main problem with plastic is the way we use it, and the kind of resource economy around plastic that we need to address. “We need to go from a linear use of plastic to a circular use of plastic”, she says, “and we need to close the tap on plastic pollution, this is extremely important”.
Runa provides very clear figures. Every year in the world about 282 million tons of plastic waste is produced and, currently, only 16% of this plastic waste is being recycled. It is very little, but at Aker, they are sure that this percentage will grow due not only to the new regulations but also to what they see in their customers, “big companies feeling the pressure and wanting to take a position on using more recycled instead of just buying, using and depositing linear way plastic”. Besides, and these are statistics from McKinsey, out of these 282 million tons, only about one percent ends up in the ocean. “That says so much when we see how big the ocean plastic pollution problem is, but it also says so much about how we really need to put industrial solutions on land to actually close this tap on all the plastic waste”. And, in those solutions, the ocean industry has a very high priority for AION.
According to its CEO, among all the sectors they meet with, the ocean industry players are the most forward-leaning and have “a unique opportunity to be part of plastic circularity”, either by ensuring that their own waste goes into a new and documented value chain, into new use, but also by taking recycled material into their own value chains. “For us, the ocean industry has a very high priority”, she says. “I think also the ocean industry has a very strict eye on showing responsibility with regard to plastic use because there is no getting away from the fact that plastic waste from marine industries have been a big polluter. And because their operations are actually in, or very near, the sea, I think the public eye is very strict on them being able to show a visible leadership in terms of responsibility on the use and depositing of plastic in their operations”.
How does it all work?
We know now about the figures and the potential for the ocean players, but, when we say that AION’s purpose is to industrially scale a circular plastic economy, what are we exactly talking about? Runa, with her didactic and illustrative speech, explains it using a customer from the ocean industry as an example, Nutreco-Skretting. “What we do is we source a mono stream of waste from Nutreco-Skretting global, and then ensuring that they have the traceability that this waste stream goes into new life”, she says. That’s the short version, but there is a long one.
In the extended version, she tells us that the first thing they do is to mechanically recycle the plastic waste from the big bags of fishmeal. “We have them reproduced at the plastic injection molder into pallets, in this case, plastic pallets”. The end use of these plastic pallets is something they are working on with Nutreco right now to find some routes, “but it could go either to Nutreco themself or to someone completely else, like McDonald’s”, another AION’s customer. Then, when these plastic pallets go into use by their customers, there comes the ‘Circularity as a Service’ (CaaS) or, in other words, the digital part where they collect data in every step of the process. “We collect data when we take on the initial waste stream, through the datasheet for big bags, for example. We collect data during mechanical recycling, what is the energy use like to ensure that it’s the certain criteria. We collect data at the production site. And we collect data during the customer’s use, and the customer gets this data”, Runa explains. This “digital twin of the physical plastic circularity” works to ensure documented transparency when the requirements on having a recycled inclusion rate arrive, and they are coming.
The UK is the first market with a regulatory tightening where they need to have 30% inclusion in several new plastic product categories. Therefore, in addition to using technology and product design to create a good quality product in recycled material, AION also takes care to track and document that it is actually recycled material, “because there is a big trust issue within waste management and plastic recycling”. This dual offering, quality circular products and documented traceability ensured, are both very important legs for AION but also for those companies interested not just in their products but also in being part of the business. “It has been interesting now”, Runa explains, “we have just gotten some new ocean impact owners coming in together with Aker [she refers to the partnership with Ocean 14], and when we did this limited round of meeting investors before this happened, we see that the world around us very much see us as like a circular tech company”.
From startup to scale up
Techie or not, they are here to scale commercial solutions to drive impact. Ideally, what they want to do is to offer the products on a leasing model, so that the customer pays to access to have, for example, enough pallets to use for a long time, 10-15 years. For other products like the serving trays to McDonald’s, for example, they live for about two years. And then, they have a return scheme where they get broken products back from McDonald’s or Nutreco, or whoever has the products in use, and they reuse that material as well. So, when they get the products back, they can just shred them and take them again into production.
With this model, as its CEO recognizes, there is a lot of enthusiasm around AION. In December 2020 there was only Runa, “I was the number one and then I got Ømjer Hjeltnes, the second one to join in January, and then now we are around 15”, in June 2022, they entered into an investment agreement with Ocean 14 Capital. “We are super happy to get them on board. I feel we are standing with an ownership now that is very diverse with Aker, the big industrial, and then Ocean 14, very entrepreneurial, very ocean-oriented, which is exciting”, Runa states. “We are really going from startup to scale up, we have an intense focus on customers, we are customer-obsessed, we are really proud of the first solid customers that we have already gotten on board”.
For her, that period has been “an amazing journey”, where they are developing new circular solutions for plastic, but also building new customer relationships in parallel, “it’s an intense phase, we are a very typical startup phase in that sense”. Starting with McDonald’s, local retailers, canteen player Sodexo or Nutreco-Skretting in Norway, AION is already lining up circular value chains for customers also outside the Nordics, including the US market. “We see very clearly that most likely our biggest markets are outside Norway”, she tells us. “The fact that we are an asset-light model without ownership in assets other than product moulds, but rather through contract manufacturing with solid value chain players, allows us to set circular value chains near where the customer is”. A big benefit for the environment and the company and, also, an interesting thing for a small team, “we have to be very light-footed and meet the customer where the customer is, but we are very agile in this way”.
The team and the future ahead
When, talking about people, you ask Runa Haug Khoury to define herself she says, “I have three daughters, I’m a lion mom, I think it just reflects on also how I got my people”. She states that AION’s is a very dedicated and passionate team with an international orientation. “We are very mindful when we recruit”, and it works. “I’m so proud of the AION team because they are very passionate. I think we are way beyond the job thing, people are very living the AION ambition”. For her, the human factor “is instrumental”, and she has found the talent she was looking for. “We call our people ‘aionistas'”, she says and gives a huge smile. She wants her team to feel that they belong in AION, that they are part of something that has their back. As she says, in the end, it’s people convincing people of new ways. They have a lot of enthusiasm around AION, but they need to make their “friends” (this time, she uses this word instead of customers) comfortable because the message is “this is something that will work, and you can trust us on this, and we are going all in to make this work for you”.
All this passion, commitment, and teamwork will be necessary for the challenges that Runa foresees for the future of plastic circularity. Indeed, she believes the first challenge will be the conflict with the rest of the agendas. “There are a lot of big topics in the world that need attention and action, like, economic recession, we have this horrible war in Europe, these other grave topics. I think the whole climate and environmental agenda will in a way be challenged on priorities”. But, having said that, she also believes that, particularly in the European context, we will see regulatory tightening, keeping the pace even with a lot of big things happening in other aspects of the world. “And I think the ocean industries will have implications of these new regulations”, she adds, “and not just the ocean industries, also other markets that we are targeting, for example, HORECA or retail, because we will see regulatory tightening on the use of virgin plastic. So, that is something that I think is increasingly on the radar of big companies and they want to see tangible solutions for plastic recycling and circularity”.
If that is about plastic circularity, regarding AION, she believes the biggest challenge is like for any startup. Even when they feel they are very fortunate with much enthusiasm around their concept, the success factor “is really about converting that enthusiasm into commercial traction, into new customers and getting things signed, and we are so extremely impatient, so getting the world to move at our AION pace, I think it is always a challenge”.
Of course, we also ask Runa for her personal challenge for the future. “AION’s challenge is my biggest priority, so that is also the challenge for me”, is her answer. We told you at starting, saying that she is passionate about her work was an understatement. The commitment of that “lion mom” to her team and their project goes to sustainability and beyond. She’s building the plastic circularity dream.
AION by Aker BioMarine aims to lead the transition towards a circular economy in industrial plastics. With a scalable and technology-agnostic business model, Circularity as a Service (CaaS), the company provides flexible and traceable end-to-end services in the field of circularity on plastics with a documented sustainability effect. To this end, the company works with a network of suppliers in the physical value chain, selecting the partners that are best suited to the specific loop. Since last June, AION is participated both for Aker BioMarine and the private equity firm Ocean 14 Capital.