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  • Writer's pictureErik Van Praet

Sustainable chemicals incubator drives circular progress through open innovation

Networking event initiated by BlueChem and Borealis paves the way for idea sharing and collaboration opportunities.

The Port of Antwerp is the home of the largest chemicals cluster in Europe [1]. Many of the world’s leading companies in the chemicals sector have facilities in the area, including at least 10 top international companies, making it a hive of research and development activity [2]. In pursuit of the European Green Deal’s target of carbon neutrality by 2050, much of this activity is directed towards leading a sustainable transformation, including a shift to a circular economy [3].

However, not all of the region’s innovation activity is emanating from the research labs of large multinational firms — there is also a rapidly growing start-up ecosystem, with many new entrants working on developing the next generation of sustainable chemicals solutions. But bringing companies to scale in this sector is a tough job: there are high barriers to entry, and firms looking to break through need more investment and wide-ranging expertise than are found in a typical start-up.

Specialist support for the next generation of sustainable chemicals

This is a challenge that BlueChem, a sustainable chemicals incubator based at Blue Gate Antwerp in the heart of the region’s chemicals cluster, aims to resolve. Founded on the belief that sustainable chemistry will be a key driver of the circular economy, the incubator’s purpose is to support start-ups and scaleups operating in this space to innovate and grow.

Its key focus areas are finding industrial applications for bio-based materials, making products more reusable and recyclable within a circular economy, converting CO2 into reusable chemicals, and reinventing production processes to produce more efficiently with less energy, less water, and less waste.

Companies based at the BlueChem’s state-of-the-art facility have access to a Kickstart Fund, cutting-edge ‘plug and play’ labs, as well as technical knowledge and supporting services. Set up by a public-private consortium, the incubator has strong links with research centres, universities and industrial partners, providing vital opportunities for knowledge exchange and shared learning.

According to Erica Caluwaerts, Antwerp’s Vice Mayor for Economy and Innovation, the incubator is clearly showing its value: “BlueChem is the result of unique partnership between industry, government and knowledge institutions with the joint ambition of strengthening the sustainable chemicals industry in Flanders and developing products for the circular economy. The great interest from start-ups and major companies like Borealis shows that BlueChem in Antwerp is a success. It is clear that there was a need for such an incubator for sustainable chemistry in Flanders. BlueChem is the place to be for the chemistry of the future.”

Open innovation is key to deliver on a shared circular vision

Strongly aligned with BlueChem’s goals, Borealis is proud to be a partner. On 26 January, Borealis and BlueChem held a networking event on the BlueChem site in Antwerp. The event opened up a dialogue between the incubator’s resident companies, Belgian universities, research institutes, other partner start-up companies, and Borealis, paving the way for idea sharing, collaboration opportunities, and even potential investment.

© BlueChem

As Liesbet Boogaerts, manager of BlueChem, puts it: “BlueChem is connecting the dots to bring together all relevant players in the ecosystem and accelerate innovation in the field of sustainable chemistry. With essenscia, the Belgian federation for the chemicals and life sciences industry, as our main shareholder, and leading chemical companies like Borealis as strategic partners, we offer promising innovative companies easy access to a unique and widespread network of knowledge, industrial expertise and growth opportunities.”

Borealis have set themselves ambitious targets, including a six-fold increase in the share of circular products and solutions to 600 kilotonnes by 2025, rising to 1.8 million tonnes by 2030. No single innovation or breakthrough will be the key to achieving these goals — an integrated array of complementary technologies will be needed. To get there, open innovation and third party collaboration on an international scale is needed.

Borealis already collaborates with over 50 innovative organisations across 16 European countries, and has invested in several Flanders-based technology start-ups focussing on circularity and carbon reduction, including Qpinch and Renasci, the latter of which, Borealis recently announced the acquisition of a majority stake of 50.01% in. Through its partnership with BlueChem, Borealis aims to deepen relationships in this region in order to deliver on a shared circular vision.

Through establishing meaningful engagement with the next generation of circular technology pioneers, Borealis is putting the Everminds™ spirit into action: uniting innovative potential from across the plastics and chemicals community to accelerate action on plastics circularity.

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