Based in south-west France, Scale – the company behind the invention – was founded by Erik de Laurens, a former architectural designer, who would like to see it used in a range of applications – from furniture to accent walls – once it has successfully produced on a commercial scale.
“At the moment, we source tilapia scales from sustainably grown tilapia in Indonesia and we can source up to 100 tonnes of dried scales per month. We also hope to start sourcing more locally, with sardines and salmon being possible options that are extensively processed here in Europe. There could be 20,000 tons of scales available from these species in France, but the structure of the sector is not yet ready. We are looking for clean, dry fish scales in Europe,” says de Laurens.
“Worldwide, we have calculated that there are approximately one million tons of scales available per year. Renewable material, which is the key factor,” he adds.
Currently, according to de Laurens, fish processors reject the scales or mix them with other fish by-products as animal feed. However, he thinks they can serve a much greater purpose when converted into scalite – a substance composed solely of fish scales.
“The scales are made up of collagen fibers that have been biomineralised – they contain around 50% minerals, depending on the fish. This creates a lattice structure that is really strong and protects the fish,” de Laurens explains.
In order to turn them into Scalite, the scales are first ground into a powder which is then formed into sheets by Scale.
“We use the natural biopolymer of the scales as a binder. During the process, the two phases of the scales (organic and mineral) are simply rearranged into sheets. This makes it a unique answer to sustainability, as most other materials contain some sort of petrochemical-based plastic. Ours is also ocean friendly – we want our material to be safe and Scalite has passed the text for ecotoxicity,” de Laurens explains.
“It’s also naturally flame retardant, which is a prerequisite for building public spaces, it can be put together with its own glue – we create our own glue which is also fish scale based, which allows us to make these single material assemblies.This is very important for the furniture industry, because many glues used in furniture contain VOCs [volatile organic compounds]like formaldehyde, which create indoor pollution — they can be carcinogenic and also disrupt your endocrine system,” says de Laurens.
The idea originated when de Laurens was studying product design at the Royal College of Art in London. During his course, he focused on the food industry in France to imagine new ways of producing materials with a local identity and a sustainable approach. He quickly identified scales as an overlooked by-product available for creating new materials.
“After two months of research, I created the first version of Scalite,” he recalls.
Shortly thereafter, de Laurens accepted a job in the materials research department of Foster and Partners, where he worked for six years. But the concept stuck with him, and four years ago he decided to start his own business alongside his cousin, serial entrepreneur Edouard de Dreuzy, and they now employ six other people. They can currently produce around 100 m2 of Scalite (the equivalent of one tonne) per month from their factory near Biarritz, but plan to double that figure by early next year.
“It’s still on a small scale, but it will allow us to tackle bigger projects,” says de Laurens.
“At the moment we don’t have economies of scale, so we are much more expensive than bulk materials, but we are not more expensive than similar solutions. The customers we are looking for are those willing to make that extra cost specification,” he adds.
As they look to increase production, they are also looking for additional investment.
“We raised €800,000 in 2020 and also received a lot of help from the French government and the regional government. We are currently looking to raise again to help us access the market and maintain day-to-day activities,” says de Laurens .
Currently, de Laurens works with retail brands and furniture brands – both directly and through several designers and architects.
As for properties, de Laurens notes that scalite can swell when wet, making it unsuitable for bathrooms and kitchens, but says it can otherwise be used in a wide range of environments. interiors and has a number of important durability benefits. perspective.
“One of the materials we’re also comparing is a product called Corian, from DuPont. It is a petrochemical-based acrylic loaded with aluminum silicates, which must be extracted,” de Laurens explains.
“Scalite, on the other hand, is durable, but biodegradable. We can also recycle it in our factory. It can be machined with the same tools you would use with wood. You can screw it, saw it, CNC machine it” , he adds.
“We want to focus on making Scalite and working with a network of makers to turn it into objects. But, because we’re at an early stage, there’s a lot of education to be done with both customers and equipment manufacturers. So we do a lot of prototyping in-house,” he explains.
However, in the longer term, he is confident that the business will grow significantly in the years to come.
“I think the market interest is proven, but we would like to see it proven in numbers. Ultimately, we would like to have a full-scale production facility here in Europe, where we can source and process European fish scales, and then duplicate the model in areas of the world where the scales are available and where market – Asia and the Americas,” he concludes.