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Millennial goals: In conversation with Mathieu Flamini

Mathieu Flamini has been playing at the top level of professional football since 2003. However, the 34-year-old, like increasing numbers of his generation, has more than one career. As the co-founder of GFBiochemicals, he is also finding success on a completely different playing field.

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Like many other millennials, Mathieu Flamini is refusing to limit himself to just one career. When he finishes training, he swaps his football boots for a suit and heads to a series of meetings in his role as co-founder of the pioneering biochemical company GFBiochemicals. Applying lessons learnt on the field to the boardroom, Flamini has established himself as an environmental entrepreneur while simultaneously remaining at the very top of the beautiful game. In an interview with Julius Baer, Flamini discusses his dual passions of football and the environment, risk, and adapting to survive.

How did GFBiochemicals come into being?
Let’s go back eight years. I had just moved to AC Milan and I met Pasquale Granata, who was to become my business partner. We both shared the same passion: nature and the environment. We wanted to make a contribution to the environment and find a solution for one of the world’s major problems, climate change, which is why we met with a group of scientists and researchers to see what we could do.

Together we decided to move forward and develop levulinic acid. Levulinic acid is a molecule which has been identified by the US Department of Energy as one of the 12 molecules of the future. It has the potential to substitute oil in all of its derivatives, from plastics and solvents to detergents and cleaning products, which clearly has huge implications for the environment.

Significantly, that molecule had never been produced on an industrial scale – until now. GFBiochemicals has been able to lower the cost of production and to produce it from a cheaper raw material, biomass, and that’s why today we are the only ones to produce levulinic acid continuously and in industrial quantities.

What were the main challenges that you faced setting up the business?
It had simply never been done before. So taking that into consideration, it was not an easy task. In addition, neither I nor my business partner have a chemical background, which is why we decided to have the best possible team around us. For over a year we did research at the Polytechnic University of Milan with a team of researchers and scientists, meeting them every week and developing the new technology, the new process, in the lab.

It was only after a year of research that we came out with the first prototypes for the technology. The technology was working in the lab, but then we had to move from the lab to the plant. It took us many years, many trials, many improvements to the technology, many additional modifications to finally come out with a technology which works, continuously and on an industrial scale.

When you first started GFBiochemicals, did the idea of failure and the risk involved frighten you?
Of course. Obviously the risk was very high and that is something you have to take into consideration. But for me, it became another challenge. Why? Because I started my life with the dream to become a football player. That was a challenge, that was a dream, and I managed to make it. So I already consider myself very lucky, extremely lucky, because I managed to achieve one dream.

Then, when I started with this venture, it was because we wanted to develop something for the environment in the sustainable business sector, such as a new energy. But as that first year went on, it became a passion and making a success of it became my next challenge.

I’m someone who has been challenging myself all my life. I’m someone who loves the competition.

If you tell me it has not been done before, or if you tell me it is not possible, then it’s something I want to do.

Why is education on environmental issues important?
During that first year – being in contact with researchers, people from the sustainable industry, and from the renewable solutions sector – I was learning about the problems for our environment, but what was missing for me were the solutions.

It is obviously very important to communicate to people about the risks of climate change, but it is also important to give solutions. That became a motivation for me; we wanted to inform, but we also wanted to give a solution to the problem.

So for that reason we created BIOCIRCE – the first Master’s degree in Italy dedicated to bioeconomy – and we also created an e-magazine, called ‘The BioJournal’, which shares news about the bio-world. Information is very important; you need to teach people and to help them understand how important it is to react today. If we don’t react today, there won’t be any tomorrow.

Why should the next generation of entrepreneurs look to sustainable solutions?
All these renewable energies, all these sustainable solutions, they are the future. It is also important for people to understand that it is profitable. Of course it is important to help the planet, and find solutions to the major problem that is climate change, but it is also important to tell the young generation that it is profitable. There is a sound business reason to move in this direction. We don’t have any more excuses to say that renewable energies are too expensive. It is not true any more. We can achieve something great for the planet by investing in sustainable solutions but we can also create a good business model – and jobs. We will create more jobs by investing in renewable energy than by trying to re-open old coal mines.

Of course it’s important to help the planet, and find solutions to climate change, but it’s also important to tell the young generation that it is profitable.

How has your professional football career informed your business career?
There are two main things that I have learnt in football that have helped me in my business venture. The first one is how to perform under pressure. When you play in front of 60,000 people, and millions of people in front of the TV, you can feel the pressure – you have to succeed, you have to win. There is no room for failure.

The second point is leadership. When you’re in a team, when you’re on the pitch, you have to take responsibility. You have to be able to help your partner, you have to be able to regroup the team, you have to be able to inspire the younger players around you. This is something that also helps me in business because it is the people who make the company.

What advice would you give to other millennials who are interested in pursuing a secondary passion project, on the side of their jobs?
If you want to be successful in anything in life, you need dedication. You need to work hard and make sacrifices. You can’t achieve anything without dedication. That is true in football, but it is also true in business. You can’t create anything, at least not anything successful, without dedication.

Also, I believe that everything is possible. Because with hard work, you can achieve anything. What you feel, you attract. What you dream, you create. And what you think, you become. I believe that if you can dream it, you can do it. It’s only about hard work. I want to tell my generation and the next that everything is possible, so if you believe in something, if you have a dream, go for it!

Why are millennial career paths more varied than those of previous generations?
I think people are moving much more than before from one project to another because they need to survive, they need to adapt. As Darwin said, it is not the biggest and strongest who survive but those who know how to adapt. We live in a world which is much faster than before, and that requires us to adapt at a faster rate. Today people move from one industry to another, to adapt to different situations, or different styles of life. We live in a world which is much faster than before, and that requires us to adapt at a faster rate.

What are your future plans?
I’m someone who always likes to project myself in the future. Because I like, or at least I try, to anticipate as many things as possible, so that if something goes wrong, I know how to resolve the problem. That has been what I have been doing for many years, always positioning myself in the future. But recently I have tried to come out with a new resolution: to live more in the present. Because I feel that if you keep projecting yourself in the future, you forget to enjoy the present moment.