European Commission ploughs millions into scheme to encourage the chemical sector to make use of bio-based approaches such as industrial biotechnology

The European Commission has launched an initiative to help chemical companies switch to renewable feedstocks and energy sources as part of a European Union drive to persuade chemical producers, to make more innovative use of existing technologies.

The €4.5 million (£3.9 million) Biochem project has a target of helping 250 chemical small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) exploit the potential of bio-based business, such as industrial biotechnology, in the development of more sustainable production processes.

’Most chemical SMEs have never had anything to do with white biotechnology and do not realise how it can help them be more innovative,’ says Steve Fletcher, director of delivery programmes at the UK-based Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network which is leading a consortium of   public and private sector bodies implementing the Biochem initiative. 

’We will be bringing chemical SMEs together with industrial biotech companies which want to diversify into chemicals production,’ he continues, saying there could be particular opportunities for partnerships in areas such as enzyme catalysts.

Under Biochem, SMEs will be given guidance on how to manage innovation schemes in biotechnology. They will be provided with training packages and advice on how to apply for funding.

The project was first proposed to the European Commission by SusChem, the European technology platform on sustainable chemistry headed by the European Chemistry Industry Council (Cefic) and the European BioIndustries Association. 

’This is a key concrete step in SusChem’s new focus to foster innovation in the chemical and related industries,’ says Ger Spork, Cefic’s innovation manager. 

Like the European Commission, Cefic believes that not enough is currently being done in the chemical industry to foster innovation from existing technologies. 

’On the research side Europe does well, but its performance in bringing research work to the market is poor,’ says Gernot Klotz, Cefic’s executive director for research and innovation.

’For us, innovation is about bringing new solutions to the market. Some of these may require new basic research but there are a lot of existing technologies which can generate new solutions to meet Europe’s social and economic needs. Work needs to be done through scale-up, demonstration units and other development steps to establish proof of concept so that these solutions can be brought to the market.’ 

Cefic is expecting that the EU’s next seven-year R&D framework programme - FP8 - will direct a large proportion of its funds into innovation projects. Although FP8 is not due to start until 2013, preparations for the programme will start this year. 

’Basic research will still play a big part in it,’ says Klotz. ’It is not a matter of either one or the other, but having both research and innovation.’ 

Sean Milmo