Team interview: CHEMUK2021 - what did we learn about the chemical and biotech sectors?

Posted on: 30/09/2021

For the first time since March 2020, our Chemistry and Industrial Biotechnology Team ventured back into the world of live conferences, joining 350 exhibitors and 2,438 visitors at CHEMUK2021. For many of us at KTN, industry events used to be part of daily life; but after a few hundred webinars later, do we still find live conferences as valuable as they once were? Time to find out!

We asked Peter Clark, our Head of Chemistry & Industrial Biotechnology, Dana Heldt – our Synthetic Biology lead, and Matthew Reeves, our Materials Chemistry and Formulation specialist about their experience at CHEMUK and their upcoming activities.

Q: This is your first live conference in a year and a half - how was it like to travel to Birmingham and interact with everyone in person again?

Matthew Reeves: It was great to be back networking in-person. Several enquiries at our stand resulted in introductions to others at the conference, often to more senior people than they might otherwise have been introduced too.

Peter Clark: Agreed. Everyone seemed energised to see one another in person after 18 months of online events. CHEMUK was a valuable opportunity to engage (and re-engage) with companies working across the chemical sector about who KTN is and how we can help them to innovate.

Dana Heldt: It was great to actually see people we have worked with over the last 18 months in person for the first time. Lots of energy and enthusiasm across the venue and everyone was just happy to be out again.


Q: What did you get to share about your activity ? Do you have any exciting updates to share about your work?

Dana Heldt: I attended ChemUK to give a presentation on some of the key activities the Chem & IB team has delivered over the last 12 month, from our NetZero Landscape Map to our NetZero SME Accelerator programme. It was great to see some of our alumni present at the conference! I also used the opportunity to reach out to the chemical community and made them aware of our Innovation Exchange programme. We are currently looking for companies who have a specific innovation challenge and want to work with them and help them to find solutions for those challenges.

Matthew Reeves: We were able to catch up with several members of our SME Accelerator Programme cohort, including Starbons, Thermulon, Fiberight, and Stoli Chem. Great to hear all four have managed to take some further steps towards commercialisation of their technology or solution offering and will all contribute towards net zero and material sustainability.

Peter Clark: I enjoyed participating in a panel discussion with colleagues from BASF, Imperial College London and CPI to discuss the future of innovation and collaboration in the UK. I was also presenting some insights on the role of catalysis as a critical enabling technology, pointing to areas where we have strengths in capability in the UK and where we need further investment. This work was undertaken by our colleagues Michael Burnett and Sheena Hindocha.


Q: Let’s talk about the current state of the industry. Is there anything in particular you are excited about? Do you foresee any upcoming challenges for chemicals & industrial biotechnology?

Peter Clark: The established chemicals industry, like other manufacturing sectors, is facing very real business challenges at the moment – for instance shortage of HGV drivers, adapting to UK REACH* and how to transition to Net Zero. However the most immediate challenge is energy prices. At the time of writing, the increase in global wholesale gas prices has been causing major concerns for large energy users in the sector. This was evidenced by the recent news that leading fertiliser producer CF Fertilisers halted production at its two sites in the UK. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of fertiliser manufacture and given CF Fertilisers supply around 60% of the UK market, their shutdown caused stress in downstream sectors (particularly food, healthcare) that rely on a local supply of carbon dioxide. This recent news is a powerful example of the critical role the UK chemical industry plays in underpinning the rest of the UK economy and the interdependency of local supply chains.

* REACH stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. It applies to the majority of chemical substances.

Matthew Reeves: Some of the insights from the panel discussion and other presentations are that the UK has some of the best academic and industrial research capability in the world, especially in the chemistry, materials, biotechnology and engineering biology fields – all of which are crucial to the realisation of Net Zero. One big trend is moving away from linear petrochemical value chains and towards circular carbon or biobased alternatives. The industry is going “full-circle”, focusing less on large volume, cost-reducing production to generate market share, and towards smaller volume but higher value-add operations that can supply a local/regional or national market demand rather than focussing on the global demand. These smaller enterprises can be supported by coordinated national support infrastructure to facilitate knowledge sharing – not only in the technical aspects but also in the business, supply chain and commercialisation aspect. Increasingly this knowledge sharing requires the formation and nurture of new relationships across traditional sector or scientific boundaries.

Everyone on the panel agreed that the chemicals (and associated) sectors are critically important to Net Zero, sustained economic growth and better paid jobs across the coming decades. We are getting better at communicating this importance however more needs to be done to accelerate and amplify this. Government needs to be shown how important the sector is if resources are to be directed in the most efficient manner. For example, engagement between industry and higher education institutions will be critical in ensuring the workforce with the right skills are coming through onto the labour market, particularly in digitalisation and entrepreneurship. A central challenge is that government and industry should focus on the consolidation of innovation activity in several areas, in effect backing fewer “horses” but martialing industry stakeholders and the support ecosystem around these. Industry should not be afraid to be critical of emerging innovation ideas and projects in order to differentiate between the ones that are likely to be winners and those with only a small chance of making it to market.

Dana Heldt: It was great to see that ChemUK had a few designated sessions around bio-based solutions and green chemistry. Enabling technologies like industrial biotechnology, engineering biology and catalysis are crucial for our NetZero and circular economy ambitions and we start to see some of those developments coming to market. We heard examples of novel routes to sustainable, bio-based solvents, which can be a replacement to the toxic ones currently used, or biobased surfactants, a key ingredient in many consumer products. There is lots of technology development ongoing around the use of biomass for materials and chemicals, especially in terms of separation and extraction of valuable compounds from woody biomass and plants.

Whatever technology we are going to use to make our chemicals and products in the feature, we need to ensure that those provide a real positive impact on the environment and having a clear understanding of LCA and techno-economic viability is crucial for long term sustainability.


Q: How can your KTN team can help/contribute to solving the challenges you mentioned?

Peter Clark: Well we can’t solve any of these problems right away. Where KTN is playing an important role is in working across the research, innovation, industry and Government community to understand and articulate ‘where are the innovation opportunities for the chemical sector as part of the transition to Net Zero’. For instance, we recently ran our Net Zero Chemical Manufacturing webinar series to explore the future of the sector and published our Map which highlights the fantastic capability we have already in the UK that could help the sector to diversify away from a linear petrochemical supply chain. We are using this data to help inform policy decisions around future funding.

We are also playing an important role in convening stakeholders and identifying opportunities to accelerate the move towards bioeconomy.

Another example is our recent collaborative work with partners in the chemicals and automotive supply chain which helped to identify the challenges and size of the opportunity for the chemical sector to supply a future E.V battery market – it could be worth 4.8bn to the chemical industry by 2030. We need more of this type of analysis to articulate the size of the opportunity and the challenges for industry. It is crucial to inform future Government interventions and to unlock the investment from large multinationals and the private investment community who need this information to make a compelling argument for investments in the UK.


Q: Lastly, what are your thoughts on Net Zero and the future of innovation in your sector?

Peter Clark: The challenge of moving to Net Zero cannot be underestimated. It is a major challenge – but also opportunity – for industry. We see significant opportunities to work across Government, the established industry sector, innovator and private investment community to help strengthen the chemicals sector and build the new collaborations that will be needed for a Net Zero future.

Matthew Reeves: Since innovation in the chemistry, materials and formulation industries is crucial to realising Net Zero, one of the ways this can be accelerated is through the adoption of digital technologies, both in the R&D sphere and the manufacturing sphere. Over the past 2 years we have been working with industry and academia to understand the challenges and opportunities around digitalisation.

Soon we will be publishing an “Innovation 4.0 Playbook” which details the range of digital technologies applicable in an R&D setting and outlines a maturity framework for understanding your current capability and defining your ambition for digital transformation. We will also release case studies showing how some R&D businesses have gone about implementing these technologies, developing their strategies and constructing the business case for investment. Exciting times ahead!


Make sure to stay up to date with all the activities of our Chemistry & Industrial Biotechnology team by following us on Twitter @KTN_Chemistry and @KTN_Biotech.

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