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Science, Serendipity, and Bacterial Decomposition

A big thanks to YGT and the author Royce Shey, Original article posted on LinkedIn.

To some degree, Stéphane Vernède is a magician.
The core technology behind ENWISE, a company he founded in 2012, uses bacterial decomposition to transform organic waste into fertilizer and methane that can be used to generate electricity. One man’s waste is another man’s intellectual property.
This French born and Europe trained scientist arrived in China over ten years ago to pursue business success and raise his kids. Moreover, he is forging his team, consisting of people with different nationalities, cultures and personalities, to create a company with both efficiency and camaraderie.
So far so good. Enwise has received numerous awards and grants, even being recognized by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization for its efficient energy generation capabilities. Enwise won the YGT’s highest award, the YGT 2021 Winners.

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Born and raised in France, neither Stephane’s passion nor natural knack for science has faded; simply put, he is a genius geek. From his hometown to the halls of France’s and Switzerland’s top universities, Stephane’s life reveals a consistent devotion to and unparalleled passion for science. At Centrale, one of France’s top universities, he concurrently obtained two Master’s degrees in Materials Science and Applied Physics within three years. Then, Stephane attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, globally ranked 14th, where he received his phD in Materials Science.
After academia, Stephane worked in the aluminum industry as a research engineer before he and his wife Li Zhuoya moved to China. The two discussed the possibility of creating a startup in the aluminum industry, however, the field’s heavy capital expenditure forced them to pivot. Then, a friend working in France’s anaerobic digestion industry approached them about the prospect of taking the French business model and bringing it to China. However, it turned out to be unsuccessful. The company required large, centralized plants that entailed bureaucratic overhead and regulatory hurdles that hampered development. Plus, the market wasn’t ready for this type of product.
This hurdle sparked inspiration. Stephane became convinced that methane would become the future of clean energy storage. Stephane began work as the energy manager for a company providing energy efficiency management services for China’s largest foreign retailer. At the time, companies needed to ship organic biomass to anaerobic digestion facilities where it would be converted to energy, and then the energy would be sent to a third facility to be used. Stephane came up with the idea of creating a digester that could convert biomass into energy onsite.
Enter OSCAR, Enwise’s modular anaerobic digestion system, what looks to be a series of metal tanks, generators, boxes connected by piping is Enwise’s inspiration product and the culmination of Stephane’s science journey. Inside the industrial-looking contraption is a modularly designed and simplified ecosystem that brings in undigested biomass, introduces it to decomposers, and tanks to store the final products. Inconspicuously attachable to the side of a building, its modular design allows Enwise to tailor OSCAR to each customer’s needs. The machine is also equipped with an IoT monitoring platform that allows users to supervise the system and control it remotely.

Innovative technology requires the right team to bring it into fruition. Enwise is made up of an assortment of East and West. This dichotomy proves both challenging and beneficial to Stephane.

According to Stephane, Westerners are afraid of making mistakes. They double-check and triple-check each step of the process, putting out fires and identifying problems as they arise. This scrutiny on the minutia makes project progression slower. Inversely, Chinese culture tends to be less detail-oriented and emphasizes getting stuff done, making mistakes is inevitable and necessary to keep things moving. Sometimes, this means you must go back, and review problems that arose along the way.

Another big difference, according to Stephane, is the blur between work and personal life. It’s unprofessional to share too many personal details with a colleague in the West. There is compartmentalization of the people you work with, ‘they are not your friends, they are your co-workers.’ Not so in China. Employees are willing to work overtime and answer calls during weekends, in fact, it’s expected. Friendships extend beyond courtesy. When the people at Enwise ask, ‘how are you?’ They want to know because they genuinely care about each other.

Other than watching his company grow, Stephane said working with Enwise’s team has been the most rewarding part of entrepreneurship. From an outsider’s perspective, their interactions with each other are akin to old friends, rather than employees working for an employer. There is a palpable comfort and familiarity between everyone. They talk about their personal life at lunch, laugh at each other’s jokes, and enjoy each other’s company. Their shared faith in Enwise’s technology and sense of kinship is a powerful adhesive that drives the startup forward.

Not to say that Enwise has not encountered its share of challenges. Three years ago, the investment arm of a French multinational approached Enwise about equity financing. They believed in the technology and wanted to get involved, even flying to China to conduct due diligence. However, they pulled out after a year of diligence because they thought that capital expenditure was high, the market wasn’t ready, and the company was too early.

Stephane and Zhuoya were the only employees of the company then. Stephane said, the best part of having your spouse as your business partner is the unconditional support that extends from home to work. While one partner found themselves down, the other was able to act as emotional support. At the end of the day, husband-and-wife didn’t let disappointment stop them from moving forward.

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Eventually, venture capital fund CM Ventures stepped in to provide financing. Its managing partner Patrick Berbon attended Stephane’s college and the two met at an alumni event in Shanghai. Berbon had faith in the company’s intellectual property and respected the couple’s resilience.
When the previous VC pulled out, the old adage repeated itself–when one door closes, another door opens. Berbon stepped in. The previous investor’s positive feedback reassured CM Ventures, plus, Berbon was willing to grow with ENWISE from its early stage.
Now, Stephane anticipates industry tailwinds. Companies around the world are limiting their environmental footprint. Enwise is in a perfect position to reap the rewards of this change.
“As [companies’] boards make ‘green’ a focus, more companies will come looking to work with us.”
To take full advantage of this tailwind, two things need to be done: 1) educating people on Enwise’s technology, and 2) timely execution of projects to meet their clients’ needs.
Disposable utensils are in Enwise’s future. Scaling a biomass company is challenging because it is difficult to obtain the source materials necessary to initiate the energy conversion process. This is the reason why biomass only occupies a small fraction of the renewable energy industry. Stephane believes the future is in biochemistry, specifically, bioplastics.
Enwise is positioning itself to take advantage of the upcoming world-wide move away from petrol based into green utensils. Stephane has started piloting R&D on adapting OSCAR to recycle used utensils and converting it back into a clean, low cost, environmentally friendly energy source.