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When innovation comes knocking... AkzoNobel answers the industry's call for novel ideas by sponsoring a global competition dubbed Imagine Chemistry Startup Challenge.

RATHER THAN SEARCH for innovative ideas, why not invite them to your door? That was the simple, yet effective approach that AkzoNobel Chemicals took earlier this year with its Imagine Chemistry Startup Challenge. The brainchild of Peter Nieuwenhuizen, global RD&I director, AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, the competition invited researchers from around the world to submit their ideas for more sustainable chemistry. The initiative was designed to help solve chemistry-related challenges in categories ranging from revolutionizing plastics recycling to developing waste water-free chemical sites. By the time the contest deadline arrived, the number of submissions was far greater than what some company executives had expected.

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"When Peter approached me with the idea, my initial reaction was, 'what if we don't any submissions?'" recalled Thierry Vanlancker, member of the executive committee at AkzoNobel, responsible for specialty chemicals.

Not to worry, as AkzoNobel received more than 200 entries from around the world. From that number, the company invited 19 contestants in June to its Deventer Open Innovation Center in the Netherlands. There, the finalists met with experts from AkzoNobel and other companies to fine-tune their submissions, tweak their presentations and share insights with one another. By the time the judges were ready to award prizes, nearly every contestant agreed that the exercise, win or lose, had been a fascinating opportunity to improve their work.

Top Prizes

Interestingly, the top three finishers, all of which received joint development agreements with AkzoNobel's Specialty Chemicals business to help bring their ideas to market, came from the United States.

Jeremy Minty and Andrew Hertig from Ecovia Renewables were awarded for their fermentation technology to make polyglutamic acid, which can be used to make thickeners for personal care products and other uses.

Industrial Microbes, represented by Noah Helman, developed a solution to use genetically modified microorganisms to turn C02 and natural gas into key chemical building blocks, such as ethylene oxide.

Finally, Charles Sanderson and Jeremy Austin, from Renmatix, were recognized for their technology to use pressurized water to break down plant biomass into cellulosic products with a range of end-use applications.

"The Imagine Chemistry competition consisted of a well-planned framework for connecting startups with key stakeholders and experts across multiple disciplines from AkzoNobel, ranging from scientists and engineers to executive management, which allowed us to receive deep insights on many aspects of our business and technology," explained Hertig, business development, Ecovia. "We also had great opportunities to connect and network with the other startups. In addition to the excellent feedback we received, we got a better sense of how global companies like AkzoNobel are embracing external innovation. In the Imagine Chemistry competition, AkzoNobel stimulated innovation by having start-ups, mentors, investors, and industry veterans collide with one another non-stop for two and a half days, leading to a constant flow of new ideas. We ultimately learned that despite the differences between Ecovia and AkzoNobel, we indeed had a similar mission."

In addition to the three overall winners, seven other startups (listed below) were awarded prizes, including expert advice and several months of support at AkzoNobel's Deventer Open Innovation Center in the Netherlands. The company will open up the site's RD&I facilities to start-ups, giving them access to research and testing capabilities normally reserved for large industrial use.

"With so many fantastic and promising entries, it was a difficult decision to choose the eventual winners," said AkzoNobel's Nieuwenhuizen. "But we believe these innovations have great potential to address customer needs and contribute to a safer, more sustainable world. We look forward to working with the winning start-ups to turn their ideas into a commercial reality with real global impact."

Commenting on the winners, Vanlancker noted: "Partnerships with start-ups and like-minded companies form a key part of our innovation approach and strategy to accelerate growth. These ideas prove that there is tremendous scope for innovations that can revolutionize what many view as a mature industry. Together, we can make the industry more sustainable and realize the solutions of tomorrow."

More than 200 firms submitted ideas for the contest, with the winners being chosen from a group of 19 finalists at a three-day event held at AkzoNobel's Deventer Open Innovation Center. During the event, more than 90 experts from AkzoNobel and partner organizations including KPMG and Lux Research worked with the startups to further develop their ideas and define a clear route to market.

Organized in partnership with KPMG, Imagine Chemistry is part of a series of activities by AkzoNobel to increase its focus on open innovation and form links with start-up companies to identify new opportunities for growth.

Following the success of the first edition, an Imagine Chemistry competition will be launched again in 2018. In a few months time, startups will be invited to submit entries online. Next time, the finals will be held at the company's research facilities near Gothenburg in Sweden.

By Tom Branna * Editorial Director
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Author:Branna, Tom
Publication:Household & Personal Products Industry
Date:Aug 1, 2017
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