“Clusters can set an environment for investment and implementation. They can bring the right people together and help to identify both hurdles and how to overcome them, for example by scouting technologies or helping to find access to funding”. To say it – in this long and exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Tatjana Schwabe, scientific advisor at CLIB2021, the German cluster of industrial biotechnology based in Düsseldorf. With Schwabe with talk about the role of clusters in supporting the European bioeconomy.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
As far as you’re concerned, what is the role of clusters in promoting the development of the bioeconomy in Europe?
Clusters can help to connect players, who would otherwise not meet, on regional, sectorial, societal, and policy-making levels. We have our own networks across Europe and make connections to our peers in other clusters, but also to SMEs and industry in other countries. These contacts we take home to our own network and strengthen the network among the bioeconomy players across the continent. Clusters make inter-sector connections, which are essential for the bioeconomy. In North Rhine-Westphalia, we at CLIB have helped to connect the energy, chemistry, and agriculture sectors and initiated subsequent projects. Clusters also involve their local, regional authorities and help them to get an insight to other regions or the EU. While all stakeholders, especially the larger ones, have their networks, clusters offer a new, and neutral view on the bioeconomy.
Finally, clusters can make the bioeconomy understandable to policy makers and the general public, by painting the big picture and communicating engaging stories. We have an opportunity to inform and convince potential beneficiaries of the bioeconomy, which in the end is society as a whole.
What differentiates CLIB2021 from all other European clusters which are involved in the bioeconomy?
CLIB has from the start had a very strong industry involvement. It was founded in 2007, upon the initiative of large industry players and SMEs, together with academia in the region around Düsseldorf, Germany. Our first chairman, Manfred Kircher, was seconded from a large chemical company to help build up CLIB2021. We never turned into a regional cluster though, but were technology focused, welcoming all organisations with an interest in biotechnology. Continuously developing, what started as a technology-driven cluster then quickly became market-focused. Drawing upon our contacts, we were able to engage early on with large players around biotechnology. We connect to companies who use biotech to achieve innovation, not because they are interested in the technology itself. This innovation drive, paired with openness towards the two ends of the value chain, propelled CLIB forward.
I am convinced that this freedom from regional feedstock and product constraints is the big advantage of CLIB, since it enables us to be truly encompassing and pragmatic. It has a drawbackthough, since no regional agency secures our base funding. Instead, we have managed to secure funding for different of our projects from different sources and we convince our members, about 100 now, that their involvement in our cluster is worth it and that we achieve benefits for them either directly or in the longer term.
How can the different clusters work together to support the economic growth in Europe?
Clusters can set an environment for investment and implementation. They can bring the right people together and help to identify both hurdles and how to overcome them, for example by scouting technologies or helping to find access to funding. Clusters also place non-technological issues on the agenda and advise policy makers. Clusters can push for support for the bioeconomy, which clearly is an issue relevant for economic growth across Europe, without lobbying for a specific company.
By helping their members exchange information on market requirements in different countries and broadening their horizons, they can help especially small businesses to grow and expand into new markets.
I think it is important for different clusters to collaborate and join forces and it would be good to see funding for this kind of work. We are working closely with partners in The Netherlands and Flanders in our BIG-Cluster project. This took a lot of voluntary extra work on all sides and is now bearing fruit. We see, however, a gap in funding for this inter-cluster cooperation as well as in multi-lateral funding for collaborative projects generated by them.
CLIB2021 is a German cluster, open not only to all the German players but also to the players of the rest of the world. How important is the international cooperation for the bioeconomy?
International cooperation is very important. Not only universities benefit from free exchange of research and scientists, but the private sector also relies on getting the right partners, with the desired technological expertise or business need. There are two aspects, which are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, the idea of the bioeconomy is a regional one. This is where regional resources are valorised by regional stakeholders and processed into products which can then be regionally used and re-used. On the other hand, non-fossil feedstocks, technologies and product developments from across the globe have to be assessed, combined and brought into the market for the bioeconomy to flourish. This is a challenge for clusters, since the most naturalway to network is still on a personal level, with meetings like our CLIB forum events, where ideas are exchanged and connectionsare made. To interact with members abroad and to have a local contact point, we have agreements with international partner organisations in Malaysia, Russia, China and Canada, which host our branch offices. In fact, we will open a new partner office in St.Hyacinthe, Quebec on 24 July. In addition, we are taking networking virtual: we are working together with other clusters and innovation specialists in the BIOPEN project to create an open innovation platform to facilitate international cooperation through online connections.
What is the governance of CLIB2021?
CLIB is an association, with the general assembly of its members the main decision taking body. Strategic decisions are taken by the board, which has 12 members elected by the general assembly:three each from large industry, SME, academia, and other members. Additional input is given by our advisory board, which has representatives also from other industry sectors. Finally, the day to day work is carried out by our office in Düsseldorf, with a staff of seven. We are scientists, with backgrounds in biology, biotechnology, or processing, who have also gained expertise in cluster and networking, technology transfer, funding and proposal writing, and communication. Our chairman Thomas Schwarz sets his focus on technology transfer, collaborations, and start-up support, while the chairman of our advisory board, Manfred Kircher, travels internationally for CLIB.
You set up the CLIB-Graduate Cluster. How important is the industry-university relationship for the bioeconomy?
CLIB helped set up the CLIB-Graduate Cluster Industrial Biotechnology in 2009 and coordinated the programme for its 6-year duration and the over 135 doctoral students it supported. Through the programme, we have seen young scientists gain an understanding of industry, which helps them assess their own projects and helps them in their careers. Through their industry experience, they are well prepared to start a career in companiesor found their own start-ups. They will also be a new generation of university researchers, bringing their knowledge into the labs. We have seen many fruitful collaborations, both in the CLIB-GC but also in our CLIB networking, where scientists from universities have come up with new ideas upon discussing with industry. They are inspired by the problems and challenges posed by industry and this in turn leads to new research results feeding towards innovations and the market.
The importance of the industry-university relationship can also be seen in the other programmes now being introduced across Europe. I am very happy to see examples like the Master Biocircein Italy, the Industrial Biotechnology PhD at Bielefeld University, Germany, or the Industrial Biotech MOOC at TU Delft continuing this cooperation. At CLIB, we are currently developing new education programmes, together with international partners. These partner academia and industry in industrial bioeconomy and bio-based products and processes. We also see companies very active in education for example in our G-BiB competition. To the student teams participating and developing their biobased business ideas, industry representatives serve as mentors, giving advice in business plans, market analysis and innovation.
What are, from your point of view, the strengths and weaknesses of the European bioeconomy?
The European bioeconomy clearly benefits from the excellent science in Europe, performed at its universities by international researchers from all over the world. This is a treasure-trove of new inventions which can boost the bioeconomy. Less strong is the ability to apply this knowledge and taking the research and ideas further into innovations. I think the entrepreneurial spirit, or ecosystem, is not as strong as in other parts of the world, where serial entrepreneurs jump into new ventures, taking failures in stride. However, through the innovation-oriented H2020 programme, TRL-levels are being raised. Especially the BBI JU with industry-driven projects on demo and flagship level is changing the scene and strengthening Europe’s bioeconomy. SME support, while still not strong enough, is a key focus on every policy level and there are many interesting support concepts in place in the different EU countries.
The continent is extremely varied, from the strong forestry-driven bioeconomy in the Scandinavian countries to the Mediterranean, where thistles are being valorised. This diversity of feedstocks, paired with a diversity of consumer demand is an incredible opportunity for the bioeconomy. New, creative minds are getting in on the bioeconomy and designing products which address consumers in a way that an argument for sustainability alone cannot.
It is very positive that policymakers have taken up the idea of a (circular) bioeconomy and are trying to encourage its implementation. Not maintaining this commitment would be a weakness, as such a revolutionary concept as the bioeconomy needs a sustained vision and effort to be allowed to mature and become fully competitive. After all, existing fossil-based value chains have been refined and optimised over generations.
What legislative measures are still lacking in the European Union for ensuring a coordinated and sustainable development of the bioeconomy?
As I mentioned before, the commitment of many states and the Commission to the bioeconomy is essential and welcome. However, to enable the long-term investments into the bioeconomy, industry needs long-term, stable conditions on which to base such investment decisions. This is true for the implementation of new technologies such as first- or second generation biomass transformation or the valorisation of municipal solid waste, which require large investments and long-term optimisation. These can be supported by long term strategies and lasting policy decisions. Common standards are another area where legislation has to catch up. Finally, adding up hidden costs of fossil-based industries (and addressing them also in the bioeconomy) and making them a real factor, as for example with CO2 emission costs, can help make new value chains competitive, and prove their long-term sustainability for business and planet.
If, as a scientist at heart, I could make a wish, it would be that the bioeconomy is supported by legislation driven by science, and neither by wishful thinking nor fear.