Interview with Alessandro Campanella, COO and CFO of Newlisi, an Italian company active in the sustainable management of sludge generated by wastewater treatment

Alessandro Campanella is COO and CFO of Newlisi, an Italian company active in the sustainable management of sewage sludge generated by wastewater treatment.

Before Newlisi, Alessandro worked in financial advisory in different contexts, from auditing and corporate finance advisory (BIG4, leading investment banking firms) to C-level positions at VC and PE-backed companies.

Alessandro holds a Degree in Economics from Università degli Studi di Palermo.

You worked as a financial advisory for a primary Italian firm, Vitale & Co., and then, in 2017, you joined Newlisi, first as CFO and then also as COO and board member. What led you to this decision? What convinced you to join the corporate world?

Alessandro: Newlisi is my first experience in the corporate world, apart from a brief working period after graduation in Poste Italiane.

After many years in auditing and financial consulting, first at KPMG and then at Deloitte and Vitale & Co, I had developed the desire to measure myself in a corporate and be close to the business and actively participate in the development of a growth company.

The opportunity to join Newlisi then arrived. The opportunity was attractive because I previously had the chance to work on a water sector M&A project, which made me realise that the water treatment industry was promising. Newlisi developed an innovative solution to tackle the biggest current pain point of the water utilities, which is sludge management.

The number of wastewater treatment plants in Italy is growing, thanks to EU directives requiring us to increase the levels of purified water. Italy fails to ensure that all agglomerations with a population of more than 2,000 are provided with collecting systems for urban wastewater and that urban waste water entering collecting systems is adequately treated before discharge, as required by the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. The increase in wastewater treatment activities leads to a rise in the amount of sewage sludge for disposal. 

Therefore, I had several conversations with the CEO of Newlisi at that time to understand the effectiveness of Newlisi solution and its potential to become one of the best innovative solutions in sludge management, which convinced me to take up this challenge, even though Newlisi was still in the early stage of business development. For me, an experience in a company with a turnover of about € 500k and 12 employees was something new as I had been involved in projects regarding mature companies until then. Furthermore, the presence of leading VC and PE funds as shareholders and the participation in the stock option plan were also two important elements that convinced me.

Newlisi is an Italian company founded in 2010 and active in the sustainable management of sludge generated by wastewater treatment. Can you tell us more about the business model of the company?

Alessandro: Newlisi’s solution enables water operators to recover value from waste easing the pain of sludge disposal. With our process, we can reduce the sludge volume by between 65% and 75%, depending on the characteristics of the sludge. The more organic the sludge, the better our process performs.

Our customers are water treatment plant operators, i.e. mainly public utilities, which we approach with two types of offers. The first is the sale of the sludge management plant. That is, we build the plant, start it up, and, if required, offer technical assistance linked to the plant’s start-up. The second is offering full-service contracts. In this second case, the ownership of the sludge management plant remains with Newlisi, which fully manages the sludge treatment and consequently invoices the customer according to the treated volumes of sludge.

Therefore, thanks to our technology, we help water treatment plant operators to manage a critical operational issue that has become significant in recent years. Recently, sludge disposal cost has increased dramatically, more than doubling in some geographical areas.

Historically, sludge has been used as much as possible in agriculture as a fertiliser. However, new regulations have banned the use of sludge in agriculture as it contains heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other pollutants. And unfortunately, also the sludge arising from the treatment of urban wastewater does have some pollutant content.

The disposal alternatives are landfills and waste-to-energy plants. However, landfills are becoming fewer as opening new landfills is getting harder due to strong resistance from the local inhabitants. High investment costs and public hostility are the main factors limiting the development of sludge incineration.

In addition, our plant makes it possible to increase the production of biogas, which can be recovered from the digestion of the biomass contained in sewage sludge. The sludge processed by the Newlisi’s plant maximises the biomass conversion into biogas and increases biogas production in anaerobic digestion by 40-50%. Biogas can be used as an energy source for the production of electricity and/or heat. It is also possible to obtain biomethane in case of another process also known as “upgrading”.

You announced that Newlisi raised € 6,5 million from a pool of investors, including 360 Capital Partners, Indaco Venture Partners SGR and Micheli Associati S.r.l.. What are the development plans of the company?

Alessandro: 2020 and 2021 were two challenging years for Newlisi. We went through a reorganisation process that ended with the recapitalisation by 360 Capital (the majority shareholder), Indaco Venture Partners, Micheli Associati S.r.l. and the entry of the new CEO, Edoardo Riccio.

Thanks to this operation, the company now has the necessary resources to implement a relaunch plan in light of the investments in the green transition envisaged by Italy’s Recovery and Resilience Plan.

We are working on the pipeline of projects and expanding the team in technical and commercial areas to consolidate the technology and increase our presence in Italy and abroad. New R&D projects are planned to recover materials from sludge (phosphorous) and obtain a residual sludge more suitable for use as a fertiliser in agriculture. We are also making new investments in communication to increase brand awareness and recognition of Newlisi as a provider of circular economy solutions in the water sector. Currently, we are focused on public sector clients as public clients manage the urban wastewater treatment. However, we are also discussing with private clients (mainly the pharmaceutical sector) as Newlisi’s technology can also be applied to sludge arising from selected industrial wastewater treatments.

What are the main challenges you experienced in Newlisi? What does it mean to work in a small growing company?

Alessandro: Probably the biggest challenges for me were related to the fact that I joined a small and unstructured company, so I had to quickly change my role and approach to the day-by-day activities since, from the beginning, I had to act more as the right-hand of the CEO rather than only the CFO of the company, managing the day-to-day administration of the organisation. So I often found myself dealing with aspects that were not only financial but also technical and operational. But this allowed me to learn a lot as a manager.

Other challenges I found on the human resources side. In my previous experiences, I always worked on projects with objectives and rules well defined for each team member so that people were more aware of their own role in the team and naturally resulted oriented. However, in a corporate and especially in a growing reality, the work system is quite different. People can’t have technical expertise for any specific matters or problems to solve, so everybody should be put in the condition to leverage her/his competencies and show the best she/he can do to contribute to the development of the company; proactivity and can-do attitude are tremendously crucial for overcoming the start-up phase. This challenge lived daily, helped me focus more on how soft skills are critical for the success of a small growth company.      


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For more info on Newlisi, visit: http://www.newlisi.com/