INSIGHT: Innovation and collaboration help drive results

01 November 2012 11:30  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS)--An impressive set of winners of this year’s ICIS Innovation Awards demonstrated the vital role that innovation plays in the chemicals sector. Not only were new products and processes celebrated but also the sort of collaborative approach to research, development and innovation that is proving to be such an important tool for industry players.

Dow Chemical won an award for pushing the boundaries of polymer science with its INFUSE olefin block co-polymers. Rhodia was acknowledged for a fascinating approach to tackling the problem of rare earth element availability, by creating, in effect, an ‘urban mine’. US technology start-up Novomer won an award for work on a new range of catalysts.

The overall winner was Swiss specialty chemical producer Clariant which has developed a process for dyeing denim, one of the most ubiquitous of clothing materials, that could save an astonishing amount of water.

Clearly, sustainability lies behind the awards but they demonstrate that companies are putting new ideas to good and profitable use.

Innovation underpins chemicals manufacture in many ways, from the core process technologies developed, used or licensed by manufacturers, through new product ideas to different, more cost-effective, approaches to business.

It was noteworthy that this year no award was given in the ‘Best Business Innovation’ category. This was introduced into the awards to reflect the fact that innovation is not just about products and processes but also encompasses the way companies do business. Previous winners include BioAmber, Huntsman Advanced Materials and DSM.

“Coming up with new business solutions should be as important as technological or product development. Business innovation can add value and drive the right solutions to customers, and the industry,” says Alexander Farina of sponsor Shell Chemicals.

There were two strong short-listed contenders for award, Genomatica and Solazyme, but the judges felt that neither entry met the criteria for the category.

Often small-step business innovations can deliver great results as can a more collaborative, or partnership approach to innovation.

Germany’s Bayer MaterialScience (BMS), an ICIS Innovation Awards sponsor, for instance believes that partnering, or working closely with other companies, with institutions and with downstream customers, such as retailers, is the way forward.

“This is a much more successful route,” said BMS head of sustainability Richard Northcote, in a recent edition of ICIS Chemical Business. “In the past, we have come up with clever technology but the market was often not ready,” he added.

“If you look at some of the recent product innovations we have delivered, they are often done in partnership. Solar Impulse or the BMS-led EcoCommercial Building (ECB) project are good examples of this. Individual companies can deliver better, more sustainable products, but when we work together tackling some of the bigger challenges, we deliver an awful lot more,” he said.

The solar driven plane, Solar Impulse, is proving to be a testbed for the successful application of lightweight materials. The aircraft has already flown continuously for 24 hours and crossed between continents, flying from Europe to North Africa and back earlier this year. A goal is to circumnavigate the globe.

The main partners for the project are Solvay, which now incorporate Rhodia, watch-maker Omega, Deutsche Bank and elevator provider Schindler. BMS is one of the project partners while a number of suppliers and aeronautical and other institutions collaborate in the project.

BMS polyurethane and polycarbonate technologies are being used in the Solar Impulse planes and research done for the project has already found a place in the market. This, Northcote says, demonstrates that some of the solutions that manufacturer are seeking to develop lighter and stronger materials are not unique.

The annual ICIS Innovation Awards have shown that while chemical product markets are not necessarily becoming more complex, the processes for finding new product solutions perhaps are.

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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