Explaining complex chemistry to a C&EN reporter before the first coffee of the day isn’t for the fainthearted.
It’s even harder after finishing a two-day interrogation into the robustness of the technology as part of AkzoNobel’s innovation competition, in a time zone where it is still 1 AM back home. But it was all in a day’s work for Alexander Grous, a 30-year-old chemical engineer and technical development manager for Dixie Chemical.
Grous and his technology partner, Fergal Coleman, were last-minute entrants into AkzoNobel’s Imagine Chemistry start-up competition, held this year in Gothenburg, Sweden. The effort by Grous and Coleman, a chemist at Green Lizard Technologies (GLT), paid off. Together, they scooped up one of four coveted first prizes: a joint development agreement with AkzoNobel.
AkzoNobel selected 20 start-ups to take to the final, held from May 30 to June 1, having whittled down a list of about 150 qualifying applicants. Now in its second year, the competition focused on six challenges that the Dutch firm wants to solve: zero-footprint surfactants, wastewater-free chemical sites, intelligent chemical plants, sustainable small-particle technologies, new sodium chlorate production methods, and sustainable liquid-to-powder technologies.
The other three start-ups that secured deals with AkzoNobel are Solugen, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spin-off with an enzymatic process for making hydrogen peroxide from sugar; Water Knight, a Dutch start-up with a chemical-free oxidation reactor for treating wastewater; and Fero Labs, a New York City-based start-up with machine learning software for improving product quality and process yield. Six other start-ups won smaller prizes, including lab time with AkzoNobel chemists to refine their processes.
The Dixie-GLT partnership won for a route to glycidol, a small molecule containing both alcohol and epoxide groups, that fits with AkzoNobel’s search for a zero-footprint surfactant. The plan now is for the partners to work with AkzoNobel—which could use the molecule as a surfactant raw material—to take their fledgling technology to market.
Coleman and his colleagues at GLT, a spin-off from Queen’s University Belfast, developed the glycidol process. A catalyst is used to convert glycerol into glycerol carbonate. In a second thermodynamic step, the intermediate is then converted into glycidol. Dixie assisted with process scale-up.
Glycidol is not widely used because of difficulties sourcing the material and its high price, according to Grous. “But we can make it an order of magnitude cheaper than current manufacturers. We have a disruptive innovation that could significantly change the market,” he said.
Dixie and GLT were already on their way to commercializing their technology before AkzoNobel picked them out. At the start of the year, they purchased a pilot facility in Wilton, England, from polylactic acid manufacturer Plaxica. They expect to soon be able to produce 50 kg of glycidol per hour.
It’s just the stage that AkzoNobel is hoping its start-up partners will be at. AkzoNobel used the competition finals to determine not only how robust the start-ups’ chemistry is but also whether their business plans stand up to scrutiny. “All of the AkzoNobel experts were very well prepared, and we were really tested in each meeting we had,” Coleman said.
To get through these meetings, Grous drew on experiences gained from daylong, dynamic project development simulations from his M.B.A. days at Rice University. “We constantly took in information, made critical decisions, sometimes pivoted and presented over and over,” he said.
Solugen, another of the winners, also already has an advanced business plan, recently securing $5 million in venture capital to scale up its continuous process for making hydrogen peroxide using enzymes engineered with CRISPR. Solugen’s process is cheaper and safer than today’s process, which has been in play since the 1930s, and it cuts out the distillation of hazardous materials, said Gaurab Chakrabarti, biochemist and company cofounder. Chakrabarti set up the company in 2016 with chemical engineer Sean Hunt.
Peter Nieuwenhuizen, AkzoNobel’s chief technology officer, seemed excited about the potential applications of the technologies developed by this year’s competitors. By midway through the second day of the three-day competition, Nieuwenhuizen was convinced that the event was a success. “The quality of this year’s applicants is higher,” he said.
“These are opportunities for us to potentially change our business strategy,” added Lars Andersson, general manager of AkzoNobel’s performance chemicals business unit.
In addition to using the finals to look closely at the start-ups’ technologies, AkzoNobel was able to assess applicants as people at side events, such as an evening boat ride around Gothenburg’s harbor. “It’s all about facilitating human interaction,” Nieuwenhuizen said.
On top of the four joint development agreements, AkzoNobel gave six smaller awards. One of them went to Swedish start-up FineCell, which has developed a high-yield process for making nanoparticles from cellulose. FineCell’s prize is a place in a “start-up camp” run by the Swedish venture capital organization Chalmers Ventures and an introduction to a pool of technology investors.
Joint development agreements that AkzoNobel handed out to the inaugural competition’s winners in 2017 have had mixed success. On the positive side, AkzoNobel has already deployed technology from the start-up firm FiliGrade for identifying plastic using a patented watermark. A process developed by another start-up, Cadel Deinking, for removing ink from plastic waste, is also being used commercially.
But a deal to work with Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Ecovia Renewables to develop a biogel fell apart earlier this year when Ecovia chose a different partner. Another 2017 winner, uFraction8, which has a static device for separating wastewater, failed to meet AkzoNobel’s requirements.
Nevertheless, Thierry Vanlancker, AkzoNobel’s CEO, is enthused by Imagine Chemistry’s potential to provide the Dutch firm’s chemical business with disruptive innovations. AkzoNobel is due to complete the sale of the business to Carlyle Group by year-end, but Vanlancker has hinted that the remaining paints and coatings business may introduce an innovation competition of its own. The chemistry contest will continue under Carlyle, Nieuwenhuizen said, with an “Asian twist” planned for 2019.
For the 2018 winners, the hard work to commercialize their technologies via partnerships with AkzoNobel’s chemical business is just beginning. Five hours after his breakfast interview with C&EN and just a couple of hours after accepting his prize, Dixie’s Grous was on a plane back to his home in League City, Texas. Even on the flight home, Grous said later, he was too pumped up from the competition to take a nap. It is just what AkzoNobel would have wanted.