Holiferm – Winterburn Group Spin Out

Impact: Economic, Environmental


Surfactants are a key ingredient used in the manufacture of detergents and personal care products, but current mainstream goods primarily use petrochemical and tropical oil-based surfactants, which cause harm to the environment. While eco-friendly ingredients in this sector do exist, they use costly and slow batch fermentation processes, making these alternatives prohibitively expensive for mass adoption.

Dr James Winterburn and PhD student Ben Dolman identified sophorolipids, a type of glycolipid biosurfactant, produced by fermentation of a naturally occurring yeast found in honey as one such viable alternative. These sophorolipid biosurfactants offer comparable performance to petrochemical equivalents but with a significantly reduced environmental impact. They developed a novel semi-continuous biosurfactant synthesis and collection process that utilises gravity to separate out the biosurfactant during production. As well as using less energy than existing methods, this more than doubled production rates to around five grams per litre per hour.

The pair secured an array of collaborative network funding grants to develop industrial partnerships and determine if the process could be replicated at larger scales. This included funding from various Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (NIBB), namely a BioProNET Business interaction voucher and FoodWasteNet proof-of-concept funding.
In May 2018, James and Ben formed spinout company Holiferm to manufacture eco-friendly biosurfactants for use in home and personal care products, as well as industrial cleaners and other application areas. Their long-term vision is to develop a range of sustainable, green biosurfactants that will remove the global market's dependency on petrochemicals.
Holiferm’s “HoneySurf” sophorolipids are produced from the scaled up integrated gravity separation and fermentation process first performed in their lab. Holiferm’s novel semi-continuous process for biosurfactant synthesis and collection enables production at a competitive price point compared to petrochemical alternatives. Holiferm's technologies, initially developed at The University of Manchester, allow for the production of clean and natural cleaning ingredients at a scale that will make them widely available to all consumers.

Holiferm secured their first strategic investment in 2019: £1 million in equity funding from the ICOS Venture Capital Investment Fund. This was followed in 2021 with >£7m investment from Rhapsody Venture Partners, the Clean Growth fund and ICOS Capital.

In early 2022 Holiferm leased a large commercial premises to house their new commercial demonstration plant capable of producing 1,100 tonnes of biosurfactants a year for global supply. Their initial focus is on sophorolipid production for existing customers and distributors. Whilst expanding their customer base Holiferm is also planning new product launches and is working in collaboration with BASF on new, fermentation derived, biosurfactant molecule development.
Impact date2017
Category of impactEconomic, Environmental
Impact levelAdoption

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Advanced materials
  • Biotechnology
  • Manchester Environmental Research Institute
  • Manchester Institute of Biotechnology
  • Sustainable Futures