Startup of the Day: Ukraine’s manufacturer of paper packaging from fallen leaves Releaf Paper

Kyiv-based Releaf Paper develops new generation technology of fallen leaves processing into sustainable paper products without the use of chemicals and reduced CO2 emissions by 78%. The startup started industrial production of packaging in 2021, acquiring such clients as L’oreal, Schneider Electric, Samsung, NYX among others. In 2022 itself, Releaf Paper produced 150 tons of paper, launched sales in Europe, and got €165,000 in revenue, and the startup won’t stop at the achieved level.

In the Startup of the Day column co-founders of Releaf Paper Valentyn Frechka (CTO) and Alexander Sobolenko (General Director) share more details about the startup’s idea, its product, and future plans.

“The Startup of the Day column on AIN.Capital is dedicated to tech projects from all sectors that originated from the CEE countries. If you would like to introduce your project, please fill in the questionnaire.”

Alexander Sobolenko and Valentyn Frechka, co-founders of ReLeaf Paper
Photo: Releaf Paper

Tell us about your startup. How does it work?

Founded by Valentyn Frechka and Alexander Sobolenko, Releaf Paper started as a secondary school project to extract high-quality cellulose from fallen leaves for Frechka, who was a member of the Junior Academy of Sciences of Ukraine at the time. Now, a Ukraine-based startup develops a patented technology to process fallen leaves into cellulose for paper production.

This technology allows cellulose to be extracted from fallen leaves collected mostly from urban areas, rather than forests, where they form a more vital part of the ecosystem. The cellulose fiber is then used in the production of paper, which has applications including paper bags, cardboard, and corrugated boxes, as an alternative to wood pulp. This paper is biodegradable and recyclable.

Releaf’s business is based on smart technology, implemented by a dedicated leaf processing production line and unique leaf processing infrastructure management, combined with a four-step process.

First, fallen leaves are collected in urban environments where they would otherwise be considered waste (parks, squares, other green areas, plantations, etc.). For these needs, we use any leaves, along with branches and grass; for convenient logistics and annual storage, the leaves are cleaned, brought to the required humidity, and granulated, keeping the required amount for the whole year; the prepared raw materials are processed in a system of special chambers and reactors with the use of a minimum of water, electricity, and chemicals for the extraction of fibers.

The resulting fibers are washed and ground in a process that does not use chemical components containing sulfur or chlorine. Finally, the fibrous pulp (cellulose) is mixed with biofillers to make paper rolls. During processing, lignin is formed, which we have learned to precipitate, dry and granulate as fertilizer, returning it to the parks to preserve the integrity of the ecosystem — this allows up to 85% of the water to be reused during the leaf processing.

The global impact of Relief paper production is best seen in numbers:

  • 17 trees per each 1 ton of cellulose made from fallen leaves are saved,
  • 2.3t leaves per each 1 ton of cellulose are used instead of being burned or rotten,
  • 78% CO2 emission less compared to traditional wood-based paper production,
  • 36% CO2 emission less compared to waste production,
  • 15 times less water use compared to conventional wood-based paper production,
  • 3 times less electricity use compared to traditional wood-based paper production.

How did you come up with the startup’s idea? What was the reason/motivation behind it?

In 2018, it was a school initiative of Valentyn Frechka (CTO), which was submitted to a scientific development competition. However, even then, society evaluated it very qualitatively, and after graduating from school, the project was transformed into a startup.

However, the idea itself arose as a result of a deep understanding of the chemistry of plant polymers and research. At first, the focus was on straw, grass, and reeds, but these are known alternatives, and it was necessary to make some unique material from raw materials that no one had used before, such raw materials became leaves. An ordinary attempt to turn forest oak leaves into paper gave a high result, from which it became clear that this is an innovation worthy of business attention.

How long did it take to reach the prototype or MVP? What did you encounter?

The first paper sheets appeared during the scientific development competition and the idea was met with great attention from media all over the world.

When exactly did you launch your product?

Industrial production started in 2021 at outsourced facilities in Ukraine. Our very first customers became L’oreal, Schneider Electric, Samsung, Weleda, etc.

Tell us about the startup’s business model. How do you monetize your product?

Currently, Releaf is gearing up to provide as many eco-bags to as many businesses as possible. In order to do this, we must spread our message of leaf technology and sustainability to anyone who will listen.

What are your target markets and consumers? 

Our target markets right now are all European markets and as for consumers, they are all companies that need to use paper packaging in their business, doesn’t matter big, middle, or small.

If the startup has already launched the product, what are the results: metrics, income, or any clear indicators that can be evaluated?

We launched sales of packages in Europe in October 2022. And we already have many customers not only in Europe but also all over the world! With 150 tons of paper produced, we managed to get €165,000 in revenue in 2022.

We won participation in Web Summit, Slush, CES to represent the Ukrainian startup ecosystem.

What about your team? How many people are working in the startup? If you’re looking for new employees, indicate whom exactly.

The team consists of 9 great professionals; thanks to whom we are really developing each day. This year we’re going to search for a marketing manager who will be responsible for the expansion of the geography of Releaf paper customers with relevant experience.

Have you already raised any investments? Provide us with more details on each funding round: the amount, investors, and the purpose of the investment.

  1. Received a grant from Google and WWF.

Our team received €210,000 for the development of our ecological product.

  1. Received Green Voucher Award from EBRR.

Our project won a €50,000 grant to develop and implement green technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency and prevent climate change.

  1. Received funding from the EuroCommission.

We raised €2.5 million from the European Commission for a pilot production line of cellulose from the fibers of fallen leaves. In addition, the total amount of funding may exceed €10 million, as the European Commission fund has also agreed to additionally invest in further scaling the project.

Also, it’s not an investment, but we’re happy that we were selected for inclusion in the PwC Net Zero Future50 report — CEE Edition. The CEE edition of PwC’s Net Zero Future50 report, produced in partnership with Wolves Summit, presents the state of climate tech investments in 8 sectors and 27 countries across the region and profiles a selection of 50 innovative climate tech startups.

What’s next? Tell us about your future plans.

In 2022, we started a fundraising round aimed to build a pilot line for processing leaves from urban ecosystems into cellulose for packaging. And we managed to receive funding from the EuroCommission, so the plan is to build some full-cycle productions all over Europe. At the same time, we are interested to launch Joint-Venture enterprises in different countries in Europe, North America, and Eastern Asia.