13 October 2008 00:00 [Source: ICB]
At last, we reveal the winners of this year's ICIS Innovation Awards. All have shown superb innovation, but also concern for the environment and social responsibility
AND THE 2008 WINNERS ARE...
Best product innovation: ExxonMobil Chemical/Tonen Chemical Polymer-based battery separator film for lithium-ion batteries
Best innovation by an SME: Virent Energy Systems Production of hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals from plant sugars
Best business innovation: DSM Nutritional Products Sight and Life project with the UN World Food Programme
Most innovative CSR project: Dow Chemical City wastewater effluent for industrial reuse project
The winning innovations illustrate the resourcefulness of the chemical industry in meeting the needs of its customers, end consumers and, increasingly, the environment.
In fact, environmental and social benefits formed a strong theme in this year's entries, regardless of which category was being entered. This is an encouraging trend, highlighting the fact that companies are taking wider issues into account when planning and prioritizing innovation projects.
The best product category went to ExxonMobil Chemical, of the US, and its Japanese affiliate Tonen Chemical for their development of polymer-based separator films for use in lithium-ion batteries - a technology that may bring about a new generation of hybrid and electric vehicles.
But it was a closely fought category, and the judges (see panel on page 20) were also impressed by Brazilian petrochemical firm Braskem's development of a route to polyolefins from sugar, via ethanol. They even asked for more information from both companies to help their decision-making.
Both innovations have already received much publicity and look set to make substantial commercial advances.
Rob Kirschbaum said the ExxonMobil innovation is a truly new product, arrived at by combining inventions from several internal and external sources. "The value and contribution to society is potentially huge as it enables the automotive industry to shift away gradually from the combustion engine." Given its size and newly found drive to develop alternative energies, he adds, "ExxonMobil has the power to lead this change."
The category for best innovation by a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) was also extremely closely fought, but the judges unanimously decided to award the prize to US-based Virent Energy Systems for its development of a novel route to biofuels and chemicals from plant-derived sugars, with the possibility of using cellulosic biomass, rather than food-use crops. The scale of the market potential was the deciding point in the end.
But the judges decided to give the runner up, SiGNa Chemistry, also US, a special mention in this category, for its technology that encapsulates powerful alkali metal catalysts at the nanoscale to make them both safer and easier to use. Kirschbaum noted that "in terms of innovation this is a real beauty - offering a greener, safer and lower-cost technology that is really new."
On the Virent entry, Rodney Townsend said the market potential was huge because the BioForming technology offers an alternative fuel to gasoline for automotives without replacement of the engine. "The big leap and real gain," he notes, "will be the development of fuels from sugars derived from various forms of cellulosic biomass, rather than from food-use crops." The judges also pointed to the interest in Virent by global oil major Shell, Japanese carmaker Honda and US agricultural giant Cargill as impressive for an SME at this stage of development.
There was a clear winner in the best business innovation category, as the judges (excepting Kirschbaum, who stood aside because he works for Netherlands-based life sciences group DSM) were tremendously impressed by DSM Nutritional Products' development of MixMe sachets of micronutrients for use in home fortification of foods in developing countries.
This development was undertaken in partnership with the UN World Food Programme and was acknowledged as an innovative approach to developing what has the potential to become a major business line for the company, while at the same time meeting an urgent humanitarian need.
Monty Alger noted that this was a great example of innovation, opening up potentially big new markets for DSM. "They have found a way to enter the market at a difficult cost point, and to provide a huge and worthwhile benefit at the same time." It was, he explained, a "base of the pyramid"-type project in that the market served is very wide, as it addresses the needs of the world's poor, but these have very little spending power.
Townsend added that it was "a low-cost solution to an incredibly important need, and an elegant way of supplementing diet and health in the developing world." In a phrase, he noted it was "nice thinking and widely applicable."
In the best innovation in corporate social responsibility (CSR) category, there was also a clear winner in the form of US-based Dow Chemical and its project at Terneuzen, the Netherlands, to reuse the city's municipal wastewater in its process plants, first for steam raising and then in the cooling tower.
The judges felt this project brought important benefits to the company, the environment and the public but, more importantly, was usable in many other similar situations globally. As Alger said: "This was easy to understand and solved a real problem using practical, basic technology. The innovation is in working with the municipal authorities and creating company and public benefits."
CSR is assuming much greater importance in many chemical producers. Alger and Kirschbaum both pointed to programmes in their own firms (US industrial gases supplier Air Products and DSM, respectively), to stimulate its acceptance and use.
I hope you find the profiles of the winners on the following pages interesting. Innovation today is vital, not only for a company's prosperity and sustainability but also to solve the myriad social and environmental issues the world is facing. When innovations can simultaneously address both sides of this equation, the chemical industry really is a winner and shows itself to be part of the solution, not the problem.
THE JUDGES THIS YEAR WERE...
Dr Monty Alger, vice president and chief technology officer at Air Products and Chemicals, of the US
Larry Keeley, president and cofounder of US innovation strategy firm Doblin
Robert Kirschbaum, vice president of innovation at Netherlands-based life sciences firm DSM
Professor Rodney Townsend, director of science and technology at the UK's Royal Society of Chemistry and chairman of the EU's SusChem sustainable chemistry platform
Dr Gregg Zank, vice president, chief technology officer and executive director of science and technology at US silicones supplier Dow Corning
FROM OUR SPONSOR
Weaving innovation throughout the corporate culture
In today's challenging economic environment, it may be tempting for corporations to slow down and scale back, but it is actually more important than ever to innovate. Innovation enables companies to be competitive, differentiate themselves and challenge the status quo, turning new ideas into winning products, processes and solutions.
The chemical industry is challenged by dramatic changes in the global business environment and the evolving expectations of our customers. In this new environment, research and development that focuses narrowly on products is no longer enough to satisfy customers. This is particularly true with the rise of low-cost options and technological advancements in markets around the world.
Companies can differentiate themselves by understanding global trends, and aligning innovation with societal needs, rather than innovating first, then seeking a market.
Innovation is a major component of Dow Corning's corporate DNA and we use this to fuel our sustainable development engine. By making both innovation and sustainability top corporate priorities, we have focused our people, processes and products on new solutions that improve economic, environmental and social conditions all over the world.
This year's ICIS Innovation Award winners represent a robust mix of top-notch companies and people putting innovation first in business, products and corporate social responsibility.
My congratulations to the 2008 winners who are taking innovation beyond the laboratory and making it a part of everything they do, every day.
Stephanie Burns, chairman, president and CEO, Dow Corning
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