Nouryon partners with Unilever, investment companies and startup networks to accelerate innovation in chemistry

January 30, 2019 |

In the Netherlands, Nouryon (formerly AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals) has officially launched the third edition of its Imagine Chemistry collaborative innovation challenge. Through this program, the company invites startups, scale-ups, university spin-outs, and other potential partners to tackle chemistry-related challenges and uncover new ways to create value for customers.

Unilever on board this year

To increase the focus on developing business opportunities from this year’s edition, Nouryon has expanded the number of Imagine Chemistry partners to include Unilever; seed investor High-Tech Gründerfonds; and the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3), a collaboration that drives the commercial adoption of green chemistry. Also, it’s supported by venture capital firm Icos Capital; research and advisory firm Lux Research; UK innovation agency Knowledge Transfer Network; Dutch accelerator StartupDelta; the European Commission’s Enterprise Europe Network, and S/park, the chemical technology-focused open innovation center located at Nouryon’s RD&I site in Deventer.

“Innovative solutions that help our customers improve their products, become more competitive and sustainable, and uncover new business opportunities are central to how we work,” said Charlie Shaver, CEO of Nouryon.  “As partnership is the key to success, we are very pleased to add more organizations to our Imagine Chemistry network, including Unilever, one of our key customers.”

This year’s five targets

For the 2019 edition of Imagine Chemistry, Nouryon is looking for solutions in five areas – and take note that #5 is an “open challenge” relating to sustainable chemistry which is, um, pretty wide open, to coin a phrase. “Essentially we are active in 25 different technologies,”Nieuwenhuizen noted. “if you have a solution, we are open to your ideas.”

So here are the five:

The Open Innovation backstory

A new and powerful wave in R&D these days is grouped under the term “open innovation”, which needs a little explanation. The idea of a distributed community of researchers around the world working collaboratively towards market-facing goals has been easier to articulate than to achieve.

Here’s the problem: smaller companies can be highly effective in developing technologies that big organizations need — but they don’t always know exactly what to focus on. Big companies have the focus, but don’t always have the resources to do everything, and there are the well known big-company bottlenecks to contend with, as well.

In the venture world we’ve seen some forward-thinking firms forming advanced development partnerships with small R&D firms and with academics, aiming to leverage the substantial flows of government funded research and steer them in the general direction of technologies that fit the venture model. The hope is to bring technologies in a more advanced development stage to the venture model or possibly to limit the number of technologies that need funding for, for example, proof of concept — thereby directing venture funds more towards the later development stages, and possibly reducing venture timelines to meet the daunting VC return on investment hurdle rates.

Nouryon — until a few weeks ago, known as Akzo Nobel Specialty Chemicals — has been the most visible and successful practitioner of open innovation in the chemicals business, because of the Imagine Chemistry program. Directly, it’s bringing Nouryon closer to smaller organizations that have technologies of interest. Indirectly, it’s raised Nouryon’s profile around the world as a forward-thinker. We noted that the European Commission’s Startup Europe Partnership (SEP) initiative nominated the most active corporate firms in open innovation and in 2018’ lauded 36 companies – Nouryon was the only chemical firm in the ranking.

The targets in depth

Let’s look at the four named targets for this year’s Challenge.

Surfactants. “We had an analogous challenge last year,” Nouryon CTO Peter Nieuwenhuizen told The Digest.. “That was biobased hydrophiles and phobes, and this area is not exhausted – there are more ideas out there, not least the interest of Unilever. Now we can say, if you have an idea that fits, we have the supply chain lined up all the way to the retailer.”

Performance-boosting nanoparticles. “We had nano particles last year,” Nieuwenhuizen said. “We have a broader business, including silica particles, some carbon black. This is an area we have a bit of a strength, and looking for other particles we can bolt on. We had a very interesting few ideas last year, and we want to signal the world about our continuing interest.”

Sensing in demanding chemical environments. This year is distinctly different, Nieuwenhuizen told us. “Last year, we were looking for digital 4.0 kind of robots and drones, that’s actually a lot around gathering data. Now, we’re also looking at analyzing data that we have in our plant, and to do so we need to generate data from our sites, and some of the these have very high pressure, high temp, can be very corrosive. It’s not always easy to have the right probes, in order to feed the AI we want in coming years. So, we need to have the tools. and in this case it is almost not a chemistry thing, but a hardware instrumentation need.”

Label-free chemistries. “increasingly, we see customers who want chemicals that are hazard-free, and have hazard labels. We’ve limited that clearly to an area we are very strong in, kelates, viscosity modifiers, surface chemistries, looking for those where we have the strength.”

Success stories

Last year, 150 innovative ideas arrived from startups, scale-ups, scientists and others. Four overall winners received joint development awards with AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals to help bring their ideas to market.

FiliGrade, one of the winners of last year’s challenge, recently started supplying watermark technology to AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals. The technology provides an invisible watermark for packaging that identifies both the material used and details about the manufacturer and contents. This helps with the challenge of sorting of plastics and therefore enhances the recycling of packaging, and also to confirm the authenticity of the packaged product to prevent counterfeiting.

Rahul Dahule and Ranjeet Utikar from Dutch start-up Water Knight were awarded for their advanced oxidation reactor technology, which is used for intensifying wastewater treatment in industries with complex effluents.

Fergal Coleman and Alexander Grous from UK startup Green Lizard Technologies, working in partnership with Dixie Chemical, were recognized for their bio-based route to glycidol, which can be used in the production of nonionic surfactants.

Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt from US firm Solugen were recognized for their green process to make hydrogen peroxide that has the potential to replace technology that has remained unchanged since the 1930s.

Another US firm, Fero Labs – represented by Berk Birand and, Alp Kucukelbir, were awarded for their machine learning software, which can be used to predict quality issues and production bottlenecks and improve key process parameters.

In addition, the following groups were awarded prizes including expert advice and support at AkzoNobel’s S/park open innovation center at Deventer, the Netherlands.

Research agreement with AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals:

University of Nottingham (UK) – Ifty Ahmed and Belinda Good; porous microspheres from glass and glass ceramic materials.

Chemical research support from AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals:

Edinburgh Napier University (UK) – Mark Dorris and Dominic O’Rourke; Cellulose nanofibrils derived from seaweed

Partner support by KPMG:

Invert Robotics (the Netherlands) – Hans Prein, James Robertson and Robert Mandjes; robotic inspection for tanks and other equipment.

Partner support by ICOS:

Semiotic Labs (the Netherlands) – Gerben Gooijers and Simon Jagers; smart asset monitoring service for motors and rotating equipment.

Partner support by LuxResearch:

Fraunhofer UMSICHT  (Germany) – Axel Kraft and Martin Peters; catalytic process for making alcohols from more sustainable raw materials.

Partner support by Chalmers Ventures:

FineCell (Sweden) –  Kloce Dongfang Li, Monica Ek and Jonatan Henschen; process for the production of nanocellulose.

Case in point: Nouryon and Itaconix

Nouryon (formerly AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals) will expand its offering to customers in the detergents market through a supply agreement with bio-based polymers maker Itaconix. Under terms of the agreement, Itaconix will produce and supply polymers with chelating properties that Nouryon will market to customers in household, institutional, and industrial detergent and cleaner applications. In addition, the companies will work together to transition many of Itaconix’s current detergent customers to Nouryon.

It is the first supply agreement resulting from a joint development agreement signed by the companies in 2017 to explore opportunities for polymers made from bio-based itaconic acid using Itaconix’s technology.

Peter Kuijpers, General Manager Chelates and Micronutrients at Nouryon, said: “We are excited to expand the bio-based solutions we deliver to our customers by adding Itaconix’s proprietary polymers to our industry-leading product offerings in detergents. These polymers will generate new opportunities for our customers in key detergent applications, enabling greener formulations without compromises on technical performance.

Nouryon’s waste-to-chemistry’s advances

Nouryon has been on the move. A consortium of companies comprising Air Liquide, AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, Enerkem and the Port of Rotterdam has signed a project development agreement covering initial investments in an advanced waste-to-chemistry facility in Rotterdam.

The facility will be the first of its kind in Europe to provide a sustainable alternative solution for non-recyclable wastes, converting waste plastics and other mixed wastes into new raw materials. The initial investments, which cover detailed engineering, the setup up of a dedicated joint venture and completing the permitting process, will be worth €9 million. The consortium aims to take the final investment decision (FID) for the estimated €200-million project later in 2018 and has appointed Dutch Rabobank as the lead advisor for the financing process.

Realization of the project is supported by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs & Climate policy, which have agreed to develop mechanisms and regulation that will help bring this new technology to full scale to support the low-carbon transition of the Dutch economy. The waste-to-chemistry project is also supported by the City of Rotterdam, the Province of Zuid-Holland and InnovationQuarter, the regional development agency. The facility will convert up to 360,000 tons of waste into 220,000 tons (270 million litres) of ‘green’ methanol. As an equivalent, this represents the total annual waste of more than 700,000 households and represents a CO2 emission savings of about 300,000 tonnes.

The facility will be built within the Botlek area of the Port of Rotterdam using Enerkem’s proprietary technology, and will convert non-recyclable mixed waste, including plastics, into syngas and then into clean methanol for use in the chemical industry and for the transportation sector.

Today, methanol is generally produced from natural gas or coal. The plant will have two production lines, or twice the input capacity of Enerkem’s commercial-scale plant in Edmonton, Canada. It will benefit from the state-of-the-art infrastructure available within the Port of Rotterdam, as well as synergies with Air Liquide (large industries) for supplying the required oxygen and together with AkzoNobel, the raw material hydrogen. AkzoNobel also acts as a customer for the methanol.

Getting involved

Participants can submit their ideas from today via a dedicated online community and receive expert feedback until March 8, when submission closes. In May 2019, 20 finalists will be invited to an intensive three-day event at the company’s RD&I center at Deventer, the Netherlands, where they will work with experts and business leaders to further develop their ideas into a joint value case.

Peter Nieuwenhuizen, Chief Technology Officer at Nouryon said: “Imagine Chemistry stands out in the industry due to its collaborative approach. It is a platform that helps bring great innovative solutions to the next level, contributing to our customer needs. I’m looking forward to seeing who we might be working with this year.”

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