The annual financial results press conference at BASF’s shiny new media building in Ludwigshafen, Germany, was a turgid affair for Chairman Kurt Bock. He was hit with a barrage of questions about a profit decline last year. It was some time before he could respond enthusiastically on a topic: the firm’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
Taking place throughout 2015, the events centered on the themes of sustainable urban living, food, and energy. The firm ran a series of competitions for new technology ideas from employees as well as outside participants. The celebrations also included about 50 brainstorming meetings, or “cocreation sessions,” with customers, politicians, researchers, and interested parties in locations around the world.
BASF was determined from the outset that the events of its anniversary year should be forward-looking. “It wasn’t really a celebration—it was more an opportunity to really develop ideas,” Bock tells C&EN. “Some are fluffy, but others are very specific and concrete. Sometimes you need unconventional answers. It is not always only chemistry.”
Sifting through all the events and competitions, BASF identified more than 100 innovation projects that it now plans to develop into commercial services and products.
From a crowdsourcing competition for its employees, BASF’s board selected five ideas for sustainable technologies that have received funding and are now being developed. The winning idea is reusable laundry detergent. The second-place project is a way to extract water from air using metal-organic frameworks as adsorbents in a system powered by solar energy.
The reusable detergent idea was from four junior chemists, each with a couple of years of experience in BASF’s Shanghai labs. They proposed a detergent bound to a polymer that agglomerates in response to a drop in temperature after a wash cycle so it can be captured by a membrane. The used detergent could be collected, separated from dirt, and repackaged for sale.
“The competition is a very nice example of how to empower our employees to come up with ideas,” says Sébastian Garnier, a senior research manager for BASF in Asia. BASF hopes to have secured proof of concept by the end of 2017.
Individual businesses within BASF have decided to fund a further 100 or so projects based on ideas gathered from brainstorming meetings and competitions during 2015.
In one competition initiated in February 2015, BASF employed technology crowdsourcing firm NineSigma to invite companies and outside scientists or inventors to propose methods for storing power from the grid and feeding it back again. From 122 applications, BASF selected four storage technologies, awarding the inventors, all academic researchers, $110,000 apiece to further develop their concepts.
Stuart Licht of George Washington University proposed a molten salt electrolyte that operates at high temperature. Paul Wright and James Evans of the University of California, Berkeley, proposed a novel rechargeable zinc battery. Patrik Johansson of Chalmers University of Technology proposed a low-cost aluminum battery. And Xiangwu Zhang of North Carolina State University proposed a high-performance sodium-ion battery.
In terms of ideas generated, the most successful component of the anniversary events didn’t involve competitions but rather brainstorming events that BASF held with business partners in the food, construction, and transport industries.
“These cocreation activities were highly structured. They started by identifying challenge statements that represent ‘pain points’ that require solutions and a focus only on solutions that could commercially benefit both parties,” says Elise Kissling, director of BASF’s 150th anniversary program.
A notable meeting was with automotive manufacturer Daimler to identify ways to improve Daimler’s buses. The two-day event featured 35 materials scientists and engineers each from BASF and Daimler. It was billed as the first time that BASF and one of its partners brought so many scientists together. “With so many experts in one room, the energy and atmosphere were so different,” says Detlev Hebecker, the architect of the workshop and a senior sales and marketing executive for BASF.
The event led to 40 ideas for new technologies—including specialty coatings, efficient drive technologies, and more comfortable interiors—on which the partners have agreed to work together. BASF has already decided to fund 10 of the ideas in a bid to develop them commercially. The first new product to come out of the meeting is a soundproofing system for bus engines made with BASF’s melamine foam. It’s due to roll out later this year.
BASF says the idea-generating approaches that it deployed in its anniversary year have proved so useful that it plans to continue using many of them for years to come. The company’s financial numbers may not reflect it, but from the perspective of new ideas for applying chemistry, 2015 may not have been such a bad year after all.