UK bioeconomy supports over 5 million jobs. An interview with Margaret Smallwood, CEO BioVale


BioVale Steering Group. Margaret Smallwood is the fourth from the right. Copyright BioVale
BioVale Steering Group. Margaret Smallwood is the fourth from the right. Copyright BioVale

“In 2015 the UK Government published its first report demonstrating how important the bioeconomy is to the UK. They commissioned a second report in 2016, ‘Evidencing the bioeconomy’, which estimated the bioeconomy generated £220bn in Gross Value Added and supported over five million jobs in the UK”. Margaret Smallwood, CEO of BioVale, an innovation cluster supporting development of the bioeconomy in Yorkshire and the Humber, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview she talks about the bioeconomy in UK after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

BioVale is the first UK cluster dedicated to bioeconomy. Could you briefly introduce it?

BioVale is an innovation cluster supported and steered by regional industry, research organisations, higher education and government. Yorkshire and the Humber’s bioeconomy had an estimated value of £8.7bn in 2013, with the potential to grow to £12bn by 2025. The region has world-class research, diverse and innovative agriculture and the full range of bio-based industries – food & drink, bio-based chemicals, fuel, bioenergy. We aim to build on these to establish the region as the biobased equivalent of silicon valley – an internationally recognised centre for bio-based innovation, focusing on renewable raw materials and agritech.

BioVale’s steering group brings together many of the region’s most important bioeconomy players including industries such as Drax, the world’s largest biomass-fired power station, Croda, a world leader in biobased chemicals, academic centres of excellence from the University of York and Fera Science as well as local policy makers.

What is your role in supporting the sector?

Probably the most valuable thing that BioVale does is make new connections between stakeholders in the bioeconomy. The bioeconomy is an emerging economy and lots of businesses aren’t aware that they are part of it. They need connections with sectors that they are unfamiliar with in order to establish new supply chains and take advantage of the emerging opportunities the bioeconomy offers.

We facilitate networking, dialogue and partnerships amongst the region’s bio-based innovators and their supply chains and give regional businesses access to the latest bioeconomy research and expertise, specialised training, facilities, funding and other support. BioVale represents SMEs in the Biobased Industries Consortium, giving them influence over the Biobased Industries Initiative calls and helping them join successful Research and Demonstration projects.

Nearly 400 people attended BioVale events last year and our first special interest group (focused on anaerobic digestion) has attracted around 150 participants. Since our region is home to the largest food and drink cluster in Europe, we have plans for a second special interest group focused on adding value to unavoidable food waste.

Another important activity is promoting the region’s bioeconomy assets to export markets, investors, policy makers, and funders. For instance we connect nearly 400 innovative biobased SMEs across Europe through the 3Bi intercluster.

We should thank the European Structural Investment Fund for their support for the BioVale team which is enabling our work to grow the regional bioeconomy.

Which are the policies you have now in UK to support the bioeconomy and the circular economy?

The UK has strategies that relate to different aspects of the bioeconomy including bioenergy, anaerobic digestion, food and drink and chemicals. The UK Agri-tech strategy was launched in 2013 with £160m of funding. It aims to ensure the knowledge and insight from the UK’s world-leading science base are translated into benefits for society and the economy at home and abroad.

Industrial Biotechnology is supported by the Industry Biotechnology Leadership Forum, an industry-led stakeholder group which helps shape and deliver national strategy in the UK. Their aim is to inform government on industry needs and priorities, ensuring the best ecosystem is in place to support the world class science base and commercialisation of IB products and processes in the UK.

There is also a lot of activity in the devolved administrations: for instance in 2016 Scotland published ‘Making things last’ Scotland’s first circular economy strategy. Here in Yorkshire, our two of our Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have identified the bioeconomy as a priority and the York North Yorkshire and East Riding has committed £10m to a bioeconomy growth fund supporting innovative bio-based businesses.

In the United Kingdom, there is no strategy supporting the development of the bioeconomy. Is the new government led by Theresa May working in order to implement this strategy?

In 2015 the UK Government published its first report demonstrating how important the bioeconomy is to the UK. They commissioned a second report in 2016, ‘Evidencing the bioeconomy’, which estimated the bioeconomy generated £220bn in Gross Value Added and supported over five million jobs in the UK.

These reports have provided foundations for development of a strategy for the UK bioeconomy. In fact the UK Government issued a call for evidence in December 2016 to help shape the UK bioeoconomy strategy. It is anticipated that the bioeconomy will form a key theme of the new industrial strategy promised by Prime Minister May and understand that cross-departmental government teams are being drawn together which cover the full spread of the bioeconomy.

What does Brexit mean for British bioeconomy?

Just like other major challenges facing society today, the bioeconomy transcends the ups and downs of politics. Brexit does not alter the fundamental drivers for sustainable intensification of agriculture, using renewable resources in manufacturing or adopting lower input technologies such as industrial biotechnology and green chemistry.

In the immediate, the publication of a consultation on the bioeconomy strategy six months after the Brexit vote suggests that Teresa May’s government sees real opportunities for the UK, especially in terms of exploiting our science base. In the 2016 Autumn statement, the government allocated £2 billion per year for Science and Innovation.

The UK IB market has an annual turnover of over £4 billion. The joint turnover of the 120 leading UK IB companies has increased over 50% since 2010 with an associated growth in jobs of 21%. There is no sign of this growth slowing down.

After Brexit, Britain has been characterized by a great turmoil in the bioeconomy: the BioPilotsUK alliance, the Bioeconomy Growth Fund. Can you give us some detail regarding on these initiatives?

I would characterise the developments as progress and consolidation rather than turmoil!

The BioPilots consortium brings together the larger open access biotechnology development centres in the UK into a consortium that is able to provide a seamless service to industry from early research at technology readiness level (TRL) 1 or 2 right through to full commercial reality at TRL9. The collaboration ensures that facilities are not duplicated unnecessarily and that there is a joined up path through the scale up minefield.

The centres participating in the BioBilots consortium are IBioIC in Scotland, The Centre for Process Innovation in North East England, the Biorenewables Development Centre In Yorkshire, The Beacon Centre in Wales and the Institute for Food Research in Norwich.

The £10m Bioeconomy Growth Fund is a regional initiative from the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership. It is specifically for capital projects in Yorkshire that deliver infrastructure which enhances local bioeconomy capacity, supply chains, clusters or commercial innovations. This capital fund for large scale projects is complemented by a scheme for smaller capital projects of up to £50k and revenue funding for a business assist programme focused on biobased innovation in SMEs that is delivered by the Biorenewables Development Centre.

National R&D funding programmes of note include the £75m Industrial Biotechnology and £70m Agritech Catalyst funding programmes and the thirteen Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy which have benefitted from £18m government sponsorship to foster collaborations between academia, industry, policy makers and NGOs, tackle research challenges, translate research and deliver key benefits.

Are there other ongoing bioeconomy projects?

In Scotland a significant cluster was launched in 2014, the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC). This was was set up to bridge the gap between education and industry.

In the East of England, an independent, business-focussed cluster organisation, Agritech East, aims to improve the international competitiveness and sustainability of plant-based agriculture and horticulture.

The Agritech centres that were funded under the Agritech Strategy are starting to develop exciting new projects. Two of these, the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) and The Centre for Plant Health and Protection (CHAP) are led or have bases in Yorkshire.

BioVale is the only cluster that is trying to bring together all the elements of the bioeconomy – agriculture, food and drink, chemicals, biofuels and energy. That is possible because the region has a unique complement of world leading knowledge base, diverse and innovative agriculture and the full range of bio-based industries from the largest food and drink cluster in Europe through the biggest biomass powered power station in the world, the biggest first generation bioethanol plant in Europe and significant biobased chemicals such as Croda. Essentially we have all the industrial sectors needed for and advanced bioeconomy, as well as the innovative technology providers and the regional policy support.

Another exciting development is a Science and Innovation Audit of the bioeconomy of the North of England. This project is led from the University of York and involves the Local Enterprise Partnerships, universities and industry across the North of England. It will provide both quantitative and qualitative analysis of strengths of the region in terms of academic excellence, technology translation capability and industrial absorptive capacity.

From the privileged observatory of the United Kingdom, which do you think will be the effect on the global bioeconomy caused by the election of Donald Trump?

Like most things Donald Trump, his effect on the bioeconomy is unpredictable. His appointment of a climate change denier to head up the Environmental Protection Agency may indicate there will be less support for biofuels and the bio-preferred procurement programme could be under threat. Also, if he pursues the protectionist economic policies he has been promoting during his election campaign, we may see some bioeconomy markets in the USA contract.

The USA has led many of the innovations that underpin development of the bioeconomy. Whilst some of these have depended on government investment, ie on funds which may be diverted elsewhere under a Trump government, others are commercially viable in their own right and may thrive without federal support.

The USA has a sophisticated investment community with experience in bioeconomy investments: if policy support for bioeconomy innovations is reduced within America, it is possible this investment community might take more interest in overseas companies – for instance in the EU and UK. Equally, we have seen many of the brightest inventions from the UK going to the US – maybe less policy support in the USA will lead these companies to stay at home.

One thought on “UK bioeconomy supports over 5 million jobs. An interview with Margaret Smallwood, CEO BioVale

  1. Julius Ecuru 30 December 2016 / 6:07 am

    It is a great interview, giving great insights into potential global gains through sustainable bio economies. I would like to be part of this conversation and extend this discussion to Africa as well.

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