Building new, circular economy value chains together

A unique feature of the OPZuid* project ‘Doing more with lignin’ (‘Meer doen met lignine’) is that it involves both the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen and the Brightlands Greenport Campus in Venlo. The research project brings together six partners in the circular economy value chain, from small to large. Given the scale of the sustainability transition we’re facing, this project will certainly not be the last crossover between the two campuses, say Bert Kip and Saskia Goetgeluk.

*co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and the Provinces of Limburg and Brabant in the context of the Operational Program South Netherlands (OPZuid)

‘We are involved in the project through the campus-based company Bio Treat Center (BTC), a network and valorization centre that focuses on the circular economy, one of the three themes at our Greenport Campus,’ says Saskia Goetgeluk, CEO of Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo. ‘The campus focuses on connecting our very strong regional business community, often SMEs, to parties involved in research and innovation. In the early phase of the project, these SMEs provide a stable and abundant supply of renewable and biobased raw materials such as spent mushroom compost or roadside grasses. These feedstocks rich in lignin are being processed in InSciTe’s multipurpose pilot plant at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus. Subsequently, companies linked to InSciTe, such as Vertoro, produce crude lignin oil to be sold to customers. This sustainable oil is used as a raw material in physical products, closing the loop. For us, this collaboration is important on both a project and strategic level. We believe that there will be a large increase in the demand for biobased raw materials from chemical companies, and the AgriFood business community is a powerful supplier in the value chain from agro to chemistry. That’s why our campus and BTC built up a partnership with InSciTe at an early stage. Our expectation is that this relationship will only get stronger.’

Sustainability transition

Bert Kip, the CEO of the Brightlands Chemelot Campus, endorses InSciTe’s important role in accelerating innovation through its connecting role in the ecosystem. ‘Our campus and the Chemelot industry site are at the heart of the sustainability transition – we are on our way to becoming one of the first circular hubs in Europe. Sustainable, circular carbon sources, supplied from biomass and plastic waste, are becoming the raw material sources for the chemical industry. In that sense, “Doing more with lignin” is an important frontrunner project. Many more will follow, and our campus is optimally equipped to facilitate them. We were involved in Chemelot InSciTe right from the very beginning, with Maastricht University, TU/e, and DSM as partners. The campus has invested provincial funds in technical programmes, so that ideas from universities can be taken a step further toward a pilot phase. Scaling up from the laboratory phase is crucial, and Chemelot Research Facilities on our campus has invested in a multi-purpose pilot plant specially to meet this need. InSciTe is making intensive use of the pilot plant, and it’s great to see that the campus in Venlo is now also on board. This project is our way of uniting the source and processing, which is exactly what Chemelot InSciTe excels in.’

Connecting large and small

The link made in the project between SMEs and the larger corporate companies is essential if further steps are to be taken. ‘Big brand owners such as Unilever, IKEA, and Coca-Cola are eager to use more and more circular material. The market is in a transitional phase, but it’s difficult for small entrepreneurs to finance the costs involved in development,’ says Bert. Saskia continues: ‘This is an issue for our SMEs in particular, who are faced with making major investments. Bringing them together in on-campus partnerships provides them with more support and means they can be linked to those corporate enterprises. We’re creating new value chains that connect small and large players. We can learn from each other – we all win. That’s what I personally think ‘connecting communities’ is all about.’

Towards the same goal

‘We strengthen each other,’ says Bert. ‘Our campuses have the same tasks, but we still inhabit different planets, as it were. Venlo is more geared towards the SME environment, whereas Geleen focuses more on the corporate side. But we need each other. About twenty years ago, a company like DSM had its own large R&D department. Nowadays, you see that innovations are being made by tech start-ups, often with origins in an academic setting. Corporate enterprises need these start-ups for their innovation, and start-ups need corporate enterprises to bring those innovations to the market, as the first customer who wants to purchase the product at guaranteed conditions. We see this happening a lot in this transition.’ Saskia continues. ‘The circular value chain is going to transform beyond recognition, and that can only be achieved in cooperation. Our campuses are working towards the same goal, so we’ll definitely be working more together in the future.’

Talent as the stand-out factor

Both campuses face competition from other regions. ‘Your proposition has to be good – that’s your basis, says Bert Kip. Some regions offer very attractive incentives, and companies are lured in because they need the money. Of course, you can’t stop this happening. Part of our Brightlands proposition is to offer well-trained talent in the Limburg region. Not only at academic level but, given our companies’ staffing needs, at MBO (intermediate vocational education) and HBO (higher vocational education) level as well.’  The Greenport Campus is also investing a huge amount of effort in this. Saskia Goetgeluk continues: ‘The fact that we have Brightlands does make a difference. We’re very well known to educational institutions that want to get their students involved with professional practice and in the regional labour market at an early stage. Our infrastructure is ideally geared towards this, with more and more training programmes – including InSciTe’s programme with a professional focus for biomedical and biobased professionals – taking place physically on campuses. We’re connecting the region at all levels: from primary school to university, and from lifelong learning to people who are already in jobs but want to learn more. We need all our talents to shape the sustainability transition.’

Bert Kip

For the last eight years, Bert Kip has been the director of the Brightlands Chemelot Campus, the organization responsible for expanding the campus into an open innovation community. Bert Kip graduated in Chemical Engineering from Twente University of Technology in 1984 and obtained his doctorate in Catalysis at Eindhoven University of Technology in 1987. He was employed by DSM Research for almost 25 years, first as a researcher in analytical chemistry and then later in various management positions. In his last few years there, he held the position of director of DSM Resolve, one of the three R&D units of DSM on the Chemelot Campus. Since 2017, Bert has acted as the chairman of the National Campus Consultation (a group of ten campuses labelled as campuses of national importance). He was Board Member of Chemelot InSciTe until 31 December 2019 and will be succeeded by Eric Appelman.

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Saskia Goetgeluk

Saskia Goetgeluk has been director of Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo since May 2017. She is responsible for the further development of the campus into the knowledge and innovation landscape in the field of healthy and safe food, future farming and the bio-circular economy. Previously, Saskia Goetgeluk was manager of Top Sector Horticulture & Starting Materials, Greenport Holland and Holland Horti International and involved in the National Science Agenda.

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