Helping growth companies develop sustainable innovations for the chemistry of the future. This is the goal of incubator BlueChem. Leentje Croes and Jeroen Vangindertael talk about this unique initiative.
BlueChem is the first independent incubator in Flanders – and far beyond – that focuses specifically on innovation and entrepreneurship in sustainable chemistry. A unique ecosystem of start-ups, SMEs, knowledge institutions and major global players will take up residence at BlueChem's brand-new premises in Blue Gate Antwerp, an eco-efficient and water-bound business park. Leentje Croes, who has a degree in Bioengineering (Chemicals and Biotechnology), has been a Manager at BlueChem since 1 January 2019. Jeroen Vangindertael, who has a PhD in Biochemistry and Biotechnology, is an expert in this field at the Sustainable Business Competence Centre of BNP Paribas Fortis, which has forged a partnership with BlueChem. Hearing them discuss BlueChem's plans, even a layman cannot help but become enthusiastic about this venture.
How did BlueChem come into being?
Leentje: "essenscia, the Belgian cross-sectoral federation of the chemical and life sciences industries, observed in 2012 that disruptive innovation often came from start-ups. essenscia wanted to stimulate this drive for innovation by supporting these start-ups, so between 2012 and 2014 they carried out an initial feasibility study based on the question 'What is needed to help these companies and keep the chemicals and plastics industry successful?' After all, our industry is extremely important for employment and prosperity in Belgium. The feasibility study led to the idea of an incubator. A follow-up study, between 2014 to 2016, provided the finishing touches: the theme 'sustainable chemistry' was linked to the incubator, a financial plan was drawn up, and the process was set in motion. In 2017, BlueChem was born!"
Jeroen: "The time was right to roll out this model in the chemicals industry. We have seen for some time at essenscia – the cross-sectoral federation of the chemical and life sciences industries – that big companies support or engage biotech start-ups. The purpose is to follow what these start-ups are doing and potentially enter into collaborations at a later stage, but also to accelerate and keep abreast with innovation. And although there was a wealth of established companies in the chemicals and plastics industry, a lively ecosystem of start-ups was still lacking."
Why does sustainable chemistry matter?
Leentje: "The scientific innovativeness of the chemicals industry is essential for our planet to be developed sustainably. At BlueChem, we consider sustainable chemistry as the industry par excellence of the 21st century and a pacesetter for the circular economy. Moreover, the chemicals industry provides crucial innovations and products to successfully address climate change."
Jeroen: "The chemicals industry is often criticised for not being sustainable enough. But everyone uses the products developed in the chemicals industry in their daily lives. There's virtually no technological product that doesn't contain any plastic, for example – that's almost impossible. Today's research into batteries is also about chemicals. Biodegradable packaging materials in supermarkets are manufactured by the application of complex chemistry. And recycling also involves a great deal of development. In the transition to more sustainable chemicals, an incubator like BlueChem is a perfect model."
Leentje: "Smartphones also have a long list of materials made by the chemicals industry. Developments in the chemicals industry have a knock-on effect on many aspects of everyday life, but most people are not aware of that.
At BlueChem, we want to improve the image people have of our industry. We want to show the general public all the wonderful things chemicals make possible."
What has BlueChem achieved since its creation?
Leentje: "The subsidy application we submitted in 2017 to the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for financial support for our construction was approved in that same year. It was a major milestone! Construction began at the end of 2018 and provisional completion is scheduled for 5 February 2020.
A year ago we only existed on paper... and now we have a state-of-the-art building with all the facilities a start-up could need.
We have achieved a lot in a year, such as entering into partnerships with BNP Paribas Fortis but also Deloitte, Deloitte Legal and Port of Antwerp. What's more, the first tenants will soon move into our building: Arpadis, Catalisti, Creaflow, InOpSys, Triple Helix, Vito and large companies such as BASF, Borealis and Ineos. This mix of small and large companies creates an interesting dynamic within the ecosystem. Our objective for the first year of operation, an occupancy rate of 20%, had already been achieved four-and-a-half months before the opening."
Jeroen: "December 2019 saw the launch of the BlueChem Kickstart Fund, an investment fund of approximately EUR 3 million made available by the City of Antwerp. This fund gives BlueChem tenants a financial boost of up to EUR 700/m² for furnishing their labs."
What can BlueChem and BNP Paribas Fortis do for each other?
Jeroen: "Our bank has an extensive network and we see almost all start-ups in Belgium – not only through our Innovation Hubs but also because we invest in a lot of university spin-off funds through Private Equity. Our ambition, therefore, is to promote BlueChem throughout Belgium. We also have a wealth of experience, through our Innovation Hubs, with business plans for start-ups that want to evolve into scale-ups. We can certainly support companies in this process. Chemicals is a capital-intensive industry, and sooner or later these start-ups will need equity or debt financing to finance their growth. Clearly the bank plays an important role in this. It is also valuable for us to follow these companies from the very beginning so that we understand what they are doing. It means we can respond quickly if and when there is a need for financing. In this connection, Conchita Vercauteren from our Business Centre Antwerpen Stad and myself will also sit on BlueChem's Advisory Board."
Leentje: "Although we are still in the start-up phase, we have achieved many successes together in the past year. BNP Paribas Fortis is an ambassador for BlueChem and contributes to our brand awareness among start-ups and in general. That opens doors for us, of course. We have also referred a number of start-ups to our branch in Antwerp, as they had questions about setting up business or transferring their company from abroad. They got the advice they needed from BNP Paribas Fortis."
What are your plans for the future?
Leentje: "Once our official opening on 28 April has taken place and the tenants have moved in, we will focus on the day-to-day support of our tenants. This can range from administrative advice to finding the right partners within our network. Organising seminars with BNP Paribas Fortis is also one of the possibilities."
Jeroen: "We at BNP Paribas Fortis are very enthusiastic about BlueChem's future. Belgium and, more specifically, Antwerp have been top players in the chemicals industry for many years. It's good to see they are forging ahead on the same path and are now also a frontrunner in sustainable chemistry.”
How sustainable is your company?
Our bank's experts help advance energy transition via Solar Impulse Foundation
Two specialists from our bank are among the top experts in this international foundation, which collects profitable solutions for a faster transition to sustainable energy.
Sustainability has been an important pillar for our bank for many years. For example, we have been carbon neutral since 2017, accompany companies in their energy transition and support start-ups and organisations that work with renewable energy. The Solar Impulse Foundation therefore has been benefiting from the sponsorship of the BNP Paribas Group from its inception.
Reconciling ecology and economy
The Solar Impulse Foundation was founded by the Swiss psychiatrist and pioneer, Bertrand Piccard, who makes it his life’s mission to demonstrate the opportunities of sustainable development. In 1999, he was the first to make a non-stop balloon journey around the world and, in 2016, he completed that journey again with a solar-powered aircraft. Since then, Piccard has used his popularity to publicise solutions that can protect the environment profitably. The ultimate goal? Motivate decision-makers and companies to set more ambitious environmental targets and better energy policies in order to achieve carbon neutrality.
1,000 sustainable solutions
Four years ago, Solar Impulse Foundation announced that it was looking for 1,000 sustainable solutions worldwide to accelerate the energy transition. That unique portfolio of solutions should then become an essential part of all environmental decisions, debates and political negotiations. Specifically, these are solutions that companies already have or will introduce to the market and that are economically profitable and technologically feasible, but do not yet have the visibility they deserve.
The targeted 1,000 solutions were reached on 13 April 2021. But because innovation never stops, the Foundation continues to add solutions.
Expertise from our bank
To gather as many innovative solutions as possible, the Foundation receives help from many partners and an extensive pool of more than 300 experts from companies around the world. Since any company may present its product on the Foundation’s website, these experts must assess the registered solutions objectively and in detail in three areas: profitability, environmental impact and technical feasibility. For a few years now, BNP Paribas Fortis employees have also devoted themselves to this task.
One of them is Quentin Nerincx, Senior Advisor Cleantech at our Sustainable Business Competence Centre, who advises companies on becoming more sustainable. “I didn't hesitate to apply," says Quentin enthusiastically. “It’s an exciting project with a wonderful and ambitious goal. Every month, the Foundation sends me a file for analysis. Each solution is studied by two different experts and, if they both make a positive judgement, the solution is labelled by the Solar Impulse Foundation. This quality feature can help to accelerate the implementation of the proposed solution - for example, a new technology or a product.”
Gunter Brems, Sustainability Expert Housing & Sourcing Services, also lends his expertise: “It is an honour to be part of this prestigious project. I have assessed several files in 2020, which was an enriching experience not only to share knowledge but also to acquire new knowledge. It is great to see how innovative some companies are dealing with a changing world, just as our bank does, and how to look for sustainable alternatives together.”
Helping our corporate customers with their energy transition
“This project is also interesting for my job as a sustainability advisor at the bank, because I keep up to speed on new solutions that are being developed worldwide. This allows me to expand my expertise continuously and to contribute broadly to corporate clients looking for solutions for their energy transition", adds Quentin.
At the end of last year, Quentin was informed that he is one of the top 20 experts providing expertise to the Solar Impulse Foundation. Gunter even made it to the top 10. These rankings are mainly based on the number of solutions analysed and the quality of the reports. “We are delighted that our input is appreciated”, the two experts say.
The collection of more than 1,000 approved solutions can be found on the Solar Impulse Foundation website. This summer, the Foundation is also publishing a Solutions Guide that will enable governments, companies and individuals to find and implement concrete solutions on a large scale. With this tool, everyone can find solutions to problems in specific geographical, industrial or financial environments in just three clicks.
The Foundation will also provide various public authorities with a Cleanprint, a kind of report and plan for governments and companies to achieve their climate goals using the solutions collected, in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement. The report will also indicate where public authorities can modernise their legal frameworks for the ambitious implementation of these solutions. The first Cleanprint will be presented by Bertrand Piccard at COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in November 2021.
Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, CEO of BNP Paribas: “There will be no future for society without a successful, long-term energy transition. This transformation can only be undertaken collectively and requires technical and technological service solutions. In taking up the challenge to select 1,000 solutions which encourage environmental protection while also being profitable, the Solar Impulse Foundation is helping us to reach this goal in a very practical way and in line with the aims of the Paris Agreement.”
Seeing that the solutions collected are actually followed up by government leaders and other decision-makers will be the crowning glory of our work", conclude Quentin and Gunter.
Contact our experts at the Sustainable Business Competence Centre
How can the blue economy make a difference?
What if the future of sustainable business is at the bottom of the ocean for once? Marine biodiversity contains resources that can meet the environmental challenges of many sectors. Perhaps yours, too. Find out more during an online event about the promising blue economy on 11 March 2021.
Blue is the new green
71% of our planet consists of water. Seas and oceans play a crucial role in our climate, and coastal areas can capture up to five times more CO2 than tropical forests. The blue economy wants to benefit from all these advantages to improve both the environment and our well-being,
With local being the keyword. And that's where the difference lies with the green economy, which also focuses on the environment and health, but not always in such a sustainable and smart way. Eating organically grown quinoa from Ecuador, for example, is healthy and eco-friendly, but transporting it here is expensive and creates high amounts of pollution.
What does the underwater world have to offer that can be reused, recycled or converted into new sustainable products? A lot, it turns out, as the unique properties of organisms such as algae, starfish, jellyfish or sea cucumbers can be transformed into sustainable products with high added value. This is a process that requires creativity and innovation, and is already with us today.
For your sector, too
The blue economy is expanding rapidly and could bring about a revolution in a wide range of sectors such as healthcare, food, the plastics industry, cosmetics, energy and even aerospace. It is fully capable of helping companies transform their traditional activities into a sustainable model. And in Belgium's ports, the country already has a huge advantage and excellent access to coastal and offshore areas.
Another scoop of microalgae?
Microalgae, for example, offer a lot of promise, as they can renew themselves and thrive both in the desert and in the ocean. They contain many healthy components, such as proteins, that can be used to develop food products.
When discussing the oceans, the plastic problem is never far away. Human beings are producing more and more plastic as the world's population grows, yet the problem with the existing plastic is that it's nigh on impossible to recycle as its components are hard to separate. By making a completely different type of plastic from biomass, its recycling is already considered at the design stage. A large amount of biomass remains unused in the oceans, and using smart, natural polymers could revolutionise plastic production, for example. These polymers are capable of self-renewal and can adapt to their environment.
Who will pay for it?
Great ideas, you think, but who will pay for them? The financial sector certainly wants to play a role in this revolution and is prepared to take risks and invest in new technologies, production systems and R&D.
This commitment was formalised in various ways during the climate week in New York at the end of September 2020. BNP Paribas signed the Principles for Responsible Banking (PRB) and joined the UNEP FI's Collective Commitment to Climate Action, a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme and the financial sector. In terms of the maritime sector, the Bank committed to working with customers to preserve and sustain the oceans. Read more about this commitment here (only available in French).
Would you like to find out whether the blue economy could make a difference to your sector?
Sign up here for a free online event on this subject on 11 March 2021 (in English only), organised by BNP Paribas Fortis Transport, Logistics and Ports Chair.
What is the future for mobility post-coronavirus?
The health and economic crisis has affected all aspects of every sector. Among them, mobility, for both private individuals and for companies.
Mobility is evolving every day. And it has been driven further as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Many people have been locked down and working from home has been widespread in many parts of the world.
The coronavirus crisis has changed concerns about transport
We are no longer moving around in the same way. And concerns are no longer the same. According to a BCG Consulting report, social distancing and vehicle cleanliness are the most important aspects for 41% and 39% of respondents, respectively, when choosing a mode of transport. There is also pre- and post-Covid mobility, with respondents being more likely to choose walking, their own bicycle or scooter, or their car than before the crisis.
Sustainable and alternative mobility in the years to come
Mobility has not necessarily waited for the coronavirus crisis in order to evolve. And, according to the same report, the share of more environmentally-friendly vehicles will continue to increase. By 2035, more than 35% of new vehicles will be electric cars, becoming the predominant form of motorised transport worldwide. Autonomous cars will also become more common, with 10% of vehicles being level 4 vehicles (able to travel without a driver, for example), and 65% level 2 or higher.
Customised mobility for employees, right now
The future of mobility is also relevant now, especially for businesses and the self-employed. The need for alternative modes of transport does not only concern private individuals, but also employees. There is no longer a single mode of transport for all situations, but a range of means depending on the need at a given moment. Electric cars, hybrid vehicles, electric bicycles, a public transport season ticket, car sharing, leasing, etc. These modes can take different forms and be combined in a mobility card, for example. There are benefits for the employees and managers of a company but also for the company itself through cost reduction, optimisation and fleet management.
Find out more about our tailor-made mobility solutions
The road to alternative mobility
Nowadays, responsible fleet management is built around sustainability. We're here to help you identify and realise your Corporate Social Responsibility ambitions.
Together we can cut your company's carbon footprint, improve employee mobility, and make sure these steps become a central pillar of your company's added value. In short, our aim is to have an alternative mobility policy.
We can help you make the switch to alternative mobility and new technologies to reduce your carbon footprint. Our SMaRT approach ensures your fleet has the best energy mix to match your strategy and driver profiles.
Alternative mobility needs new technologies to go hand in hand with new infrastructure. That's why we offer not only electric cars, but also the right charging solutions, too. As part of our integrated service provision we can determine how many charging points you need, install them, and manage how they are used both at the workplace and at the driver's home.
Modern mobility management is about more than just cars or vans. You need a 360-degree approach. We'll work with you to determine your mobility strategy and needs. Greener cars are just one of the options available. We have a number of mobility management solutions (such as the Mobility Card) and alternative mobility solutions (such as bicycle leasing) to inspire your organisation to offer a more flexible range.
Focus on employees
When you put your employees at the heart of your organisation, you're in a better position to find skilled employees, satisfy them, and retain them. Go a step further than just an alternative mobility solution: focus on their safety and let them play an active role in achieving your sustainability goals. Trust us to improve their safety and integrate new technologies.