Football star and entrepreneur Mathieu Flamini talks to Brunswick’s Stuart Donnelly and Simon Maine about sustaining two demanding careers
Until two years ago it would have been easy to describe what Mathieu Flamini did for a living. He was a professional football player for the English Premier League team Arsenal. But in late 2015, news broke that the Corsican-born Flamini was the co-founder of a green energy business. According to reports, the company was potentially worth billions and was about to topple the global oil industry.
Not for the first time, the UK tabloids were guilty of exaggeration. The company, GFBiochemicals, was not about to overturn the world’s century-long dependence on oil, but the technology it pioneered was turning heads in the biochemical industry and beyond. How could a man who had played at the highest level of professional sport find the time to create a business deploying highly specialist chemistry? After many years keeping the secret, even from his family, he was ready to tell the world what he had been up to.
As we spoke with Flamini, it became clear that the story that broke nearly two years ago only scratched the surface.
Mid-career as a professional football star, how did you find yourself in the extraordinary position of starting a biotech company?
It started when I transferred from Arsenal to AC Milan. I was 24 years old and keen to pursue something off the pitch that allowed me to match two things I was interested in at the time: finding meaningful solutions to climate change and starting my own business. Soon after arriving in Milan, I was introduced to my business partner, Pasquale Granata, and we began talking to people who knew about the sector, particularly scientists.
While we were exploring the idea of investing in biofuels, one scientist told us about a product they were working on called levulinic acid, which was a molecule that reacted exactly like crude oil but could be made from waste wood. One thing led to another and we chose to invest to help them develop the technology and figure out if they could make this product at scale and acceptable cost.
And you kept it secret from every one for a long time. Why?
People have ideas about what they expect a football player to be. There aren’t many who pursue business interests while they are still playing. It would have brought lots of pressure on us to have everything happen in the spotlight. So I chose to keep it secret – even from my family who I knew would worry about how I was spending my money.
But now it seems like the bet has paid off?
Well, it has been nine years now since we started the company and we are lucky that we have a great team who have turned the idea into a reality. We now have a factory producing levulinic acid and we are striking partnerships with other companies to build out more capacity and bring products to the market. We expect to turn a profit later this year.
Is levulinic acid going to topple the oil industry?
We really don’t see it as a challenge to the industry. We want to work with oil and chemical companies to help them develop green alternatives to what they already produce. Our product can do that without necessarily increasing costs. That’s an incredible win-win. Right now we just want to talk with people about how we can make that happen.