BIO 2017: Getting Down to Business at World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology
Developers of bio-based chemicals are adapting to market challenges on both the commercial execution and financing fronts, by focusing on higher-performing products, partnerships, and new business models, according to attendees of this year’s World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, held 23–25 July in Montréal, Québec. “The bio-based chemicals market has become more pragmatic and realistic than five years ago, with a focus on getting things to work,” says Peter Nieuwenhuizen, head of AkzoNobel Chemicals R&D. “Five years ago you had a lot of people who were feeling it out. Now, it’s business-focused. We’re all working on making very specific deals.” “Developing a green drop-in isn’t really a winning strategy,” says Rich Weber, general manager/performance chemicals at NatureWorks (Minnetonka, Minnesota). “We need to be developing products with unique attributes and understand how we translate that into product performance.” NatureWorks is adding to its porfolio of polylactic acid (PLA) by launching a platform of value-added products from its building block, lactic acid. Branded Vercet, the focus will be on providing differentiated lactides, polyols, binder resins, and chemical intermediates into coatings, adhesives, sealants, elastomers (CASE); toners; and fine chemicals. DuPont is currently building a furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME) pilot plant with ADM, and aims to produce polytrimethylene furandicarboxylate (PTF)—a novel polyester made from FDME and 1,3-propanediol (PDO)—which DuPont has produced at commercial scale since 2006. AkzoNobel has finalized its first bio-based polymer application agreement with Itaconix (Stratham, New Hampshire) for coatings and construction applications. Itaconix will contribute its proprietary polymers from itaconic acid. AkzoNobel is also using its Imagine Chemistry startup challenge to identify technologies that can improve the sustainability profile of its portfolio. In June, three winners—Ecovia Renewables (Ann Arbor, Michigan), Renmatix (King of Prussia, Pennsylvania), and Industrial Microbes (Emeryville, California)—were awarded joint development agreements with AkzoNobel’s Specialty Chemicals business to help bring their ideas to market. Rick Eno, senior partner at Roland Berger (Munich, Germany), noted that bio-based chemicals are, on principle, attractive to large chemical companies, but the uncertainty around commercializing the technologies makes them uncomfortable. “The number one issue on chemical executives’ minds today is growth. The chemical industry grew between 1% and 2% in volume last year. Industrial biotechnology is growing 10% per year.” Source: IHS Chemical Week, 7/31-8/7/2017, p.33.
TCGR Note: The biochemicals and biopolymers market development certainly has been hit, due to the lower price of oil, and certainly the funding for startups has been more scarce during the last two years but the important take-away is the realization that being “green” doesn’t buy you a lot. Like the petroleum-based counterparts new chemicals at the molecular level have to add new, better or different performance advantages. If not, they are unlikely to get the market traction needed to be successful.