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LIMEX and the fabless vision of TBM

Interview - July 28, 2021

We sit down with Nobuyoshi Yamasaki, president of TBM, a company which has developed a new material made from limestone (calcium carbonate) that serves to be a substitute for paper and plastic. Mr. Yamasaki explains more about the properties and benefits of this revolutionary material and also gives more insight into TBM’s fabless (factory-less) strategy as it looks to build international growth.


Can you please briefly talk to us about your company’s vision?

Of course, this is something that our company created with the aim of solving or eliminating problems and issues that the world currently faces, such as climate change, water resources crisis, energy depletion, and many others. From the very start, our company has been working to contribute and potentially solve these kinds of problems. Our company focuses on the recycling of materials and their circulation in the ecosystem. It is an unstoppable process. We are not limiting our measure of activities based on geographic composition or location. Instead, we aim to go to other countries that have more needs for our activities and our LIMEX material/products. The foremost goal is to introduce high-quality LIMEX material/products in Japan as it is widely known as a country that produces high-quality products.


Talking a bit more about LIMEX, of course, it is composed mainly from limestone. One of the applications of LIMEX as we saw in our research is as a replacement for plastic. Traditionally speaking, plastic alternatives like biodegradable resins and biomass-based plastic alternatives are known to be very expensive and unstable. Can you explain to us how LIMEX differentiates itself from other plastic alternatives, and how you have been able to resolve that cost issue?

The competitive side is actually born from the shared definition of LIMEX itself. LIMEX is an advanced material mainly made from calcium carbonate, which includes limestone, and added with some derivative products such as a small amount of polymeric resin that acts as a binder. It was created as a material that is cost-efficient and reduces CO2 emission compared to petroleum-based resin..


We saw in our research that LIMEX is not only for plastic but also for sheets like business cards. Could you please quickly run us through the various applications that LIMEX has?

The idea to introduce LIMEX to some of the manufacturing companies here in Japan and all over the world is its capability to replace conventional products. We are focusing on packaging with the major goal of being able to introduce biodegradable or eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bags, plastic packaging, and all sorts of printed media. Obviously, there are so many possible existing applications for limestone, but the ones I just named are the areas that we are looking to expand and increase production. Speaking about plastic alternatives, the other possible applications of the LIMEX are the containers and the tableware. We constantly receive several inquiries from foreign companies as well. Originally, petroleum-based manufactured products are not eco-friendly nor cost-efficient. Through the local manufacturing facilities of our existing potential partners in some other countries, we can create a better product that can help solve the environmental issues by reducing CO2 emission and contributing to the local society.

The idea is to be a fabless (or factory-less) company that does not possess a physical factory but going through existing partnerships. For example, we introduce the features of our technology to our production areas like in Thailand and Vietnam and deliver the product to the people in that country. This is the ultimate goal that we want to realise.


We are very interested to see that you have the fabless model where you patented your technology in over 40 countries around the world and through partnerships and local developments you grew your business. Can you explain to us why you choose to adopt a factory-less model and what are the advantages that you expect this to bring?

We endeavour to decrease the manufacturing costs of companies and to help eliminate global environmental problems. The fabless model allows us to introduce the possibilities and licensing of our LIMEX technology to other companies. It is really a flexible material as it applies to numerous types of manufacturing processes; therefore, making it usable for other countries that already have or are about to introduce new machines. Furthermore, the answer is the speed at which we do not have to be present at the factory thereby eliminating unnecessary investments. We definitely feel like it is necessary to introduce the excellence and benefits of our products to manufacturing companies. We see the overseas foreign media as an opportunity to highlight our products and gain a wider audience who wish to know more about our products. We are looking to expand our connections starting with the companies that are presently manufacturing plastic or paper products. These are potential companies that we can win over to use our alternative materials. 


Looking at the future, what other applications do you envision for LIMEX?

The possibilities are growing, and we are continuing to explore other applications beyond what we have today. At this moment, we are putting our best efforts into R&D where we could have co-creation partners who can help us discover better applications or usage of LIMEX. I have to say that we are not Almighty. We cannot simply dive into many areas because we also want to keep our core client base. Our targeted areas for expansion are construction, logistics, package manufacturing companies; one prospect is China because it is a production area. The attitude towards using biodegradable and eco-friendly products is at a high peak of interest in many countries. Many companies are seeking to develop functional, easily duplicated, or alternative materials. Hence, we are aiming to expand in areas that have these needs.


We saw that in 2019 that you began the construction of the factory in Tagajo. I guess it is to better understand how LIMEX is done and perhaps to create a blueprint for your global expansion. Can you tell us a little bit more about this factory in Tagajo and the reasons for beginning that construction in 2019?

Tagajo that was completed this year acts as our mother plant and for partnering companies to understand our technology. LIMEX sheet is a product that still requires R&D and manufacturing points of view in order to complement the regional manufacturing processes. The Tagajo factory is instrumental in educating our clients overseas who want to gain a more in-depth understanding of how LIMEX is produced and used.


I would like to know more about your company. We know that it started in 2008 when you began importing limestone from Taiwan, within just two decades you were able to grow your business to a certain size. Can you quickly run us through your history and perhaps some of the key milestones so far?

It started from the importing of the stone paper from Taiwan in 2008. Unfortunately, it was not of very good quality, the price was high. No matter how great the concept is, it was difficult to start from scratch. We considered manufacturing locally in Japan but we did not have the money and talent for that. We needed an adviser and machine to start the business. It was difficult. In 2010, it took us about a year to introduce the prototype of the LIMEX product and acquire the patent. Miyagi Shiroishi was the pilot of our first factory in 2015. The first product from our production line came out from the conveyor of that plant in August of 2016. From that, we started to diversify our LIMEX products that were proposed to replace plastic and paper products. That became our history. Since then, we have been improving our company’s business portfolio and coming up with solutions and alternatives. This year, we completed the Tagajo factory. In 2019 we began to expand abroad. We started to accelerate the fabless model and introduced our products to some local companies to manufacture outside Japan. That is a brief introduction about how our company started and what we are right now.

There are several other milestones, for example, LIMEX was introduced in the G20 Summit that was held in Osaka. LIMEX was registered as a sustainable technology in the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) dissemination platform called STePP.


When you look at limestone, it is a rock, when did you get the idea, and how did you come to use this?

The idea of stone paper is not new. For example, as I mentioned, we started by importing Taiwan-made stone paper. Our company is the first to introduce limestone as an  alternative to plastic. In a way, we took a new approach towards the use of limestone that differentiates us from other companies that utilise stone paper. The idea was always in the air, but somehow, we got down to the basic understanding of more possibilities for it. It is kind of simple, but I found out that it could be used as plastic because it is waterproof.


This is also quite interesting because your company also benefits from very good timing. If we look at the global scale, governments are passing heavy regulations like banning the utilisation of plastic. For example, California implemented the ban on plastic straws, and other states in the US and Japan charge for plastic bags at value marts. From an international perspective, taking into account all these big regulatory changes, what countries have you identified to have the highest potential growth?

Yes, we felt that those concerns are in our minds and hearts in order to be helpful and go with the flow of time. A lot of our activities promote eco-friendliness, sustainable products, and reduce CO2 emissions. This is the core of our company; in the long run, we can see many applications and demands for our material/products. 


Looking at the future, what international markets are you looking to expand?

It is hard to say. Although sustainability and eco-friendliness are in the hearts and minds of the governments in many countries, the coronavirus situation limits our services, as you can imagine. Eventually, when the pandemic settles, we will start over and increase our potential in other countries that need the application of our products. Actually in the beginning of July, we have agreed on a US$123M capital and business alliance with South Korea’s conglomerate SK Group to accelerate global expansion.


If we are to come back five years from now for your fifteenth anniversary and have this interview all over again, what would you like to tell us? What are your dreams for this company?

TBM, Times Bridge Management, was founded to create a business that contributes to the happiness and sustainability of humanity that bridges the times infinitely. This is the company’s philosophy. Five years is a short period of time considering the ultimate goal of the company of building the bridge. The results do not depend on myself alone as the CEO, the employees, and the affiliated counterparts put forth mutual efforts to create a sustainable and eco-friendly company that helps people. It is the dream I want to achieve. We give more emphasis on sustainable revolution, as we call it in our company, rather than new technologies and advancements like AI or IoT or trends that came with digitalisation. In the end, our company primarily focuses on sustainability.