An exclusive interview with Florent Allais, President of CEBB. “The transition to bio-based products requires the implementation of more coherent regulations”

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“France has been involved and promoted the bioeconomy for a long time, even before the word bioeconomy was used. The effort for supporting valorization of biomass for producing energy chemicals and materials started in the 90’s with a dedicated agency so-called AGRICE”. To say this – in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Florent Allais, President of the Centre Européen de Biotechnologie et de Bioéconomie based in Pomacle. With Prof. Allais we talk about the French and the European bioeconomy, the role of research and technology transfer and the importance of collaborations at European level.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

The experience of Bazancourt-Pomacle is unique in Europe, and probably worldwide. What are its strengths and what role does the training system play in this context?

Started in the 1950’s with a sugarbeet refinery (Cristal Union), the Bazancourt-Pomacle biorefinery has benefited from the local farmer’s strong will to invest in research innovation to develop new valorization for their production (e.g., sugarbeet, wheat, alfalfa, wood). Convinced that biomass and agro-industries byproducts could be further transformed to make value-added biobased chemicals (e.g., cosmetic ingredients, surfactants, bioenergies, the two cooperatives (Cristal Union and Vivescia) decided to create their own research and development center (ARD) to create biomass- and byproducts-based innovations and commercialize them. Through the years, ARD has become a key international player in biotechnologies and biobased chemicals, leading to the creation of two spin-offs: Soliance which later has been bought by Givaudan (biobased cosmetics) and, later on, Wheatoleo (biobased surfactants). Although farmers have been, right from the start, the catalysts for the creation of the Bazancourt-Pomacle biorefinery, local collectivities (Grand Reims, Département de la Marne and Grand Est Region) as well as national and European agencies have also played a major role in its growth and development through financial support. Convinced that innovation was the key to not only find new valorizations for biomass and byproducts, but also for the Bazancourt-Pomacle biorefinery to remain a key player in a more and more challenging global bioeconomy, local collectivities decided to create a multidisciplinary public research center, the CEBB (European Center for Biotechnology and Bioeconomy). Composed of four teaching and research institutions (AgroParisTech, CentraleSupélec and NEOMA Business School et Université de Reims Champagne Ardenne (URCA), the CEBB builds on its strong scientific and technical expertise in green chemistry, biotechnologies, biomaterials, downstream processing, imaging, digital sciences, economic analyses of sectors etc… to develop new innovations up to TRL 4-5 that will be further scaled-up to the TRL 8-9 through IP licensing, start-up creations etc. This combination of public and private research on the same site with the strong involvement of farmers and a strong financial support of local collectivities, national and European agencies are the three main strengths of the Bazancourt-Pomacle biorefinery. Recently labelled Territoire d’Industrie by the French government, the Bazancourt-Pomacle biorefinery is recognized as a unique and key player in the French bioeconomy and beyond. 

France is one of the leading countries in the bioeconomy and has been attracting many new flagship plants lately. How important is the support of the state and the regions in the competitive capacity of your country?

Indeed, France has been involved and promoted the bioeconomy for a long time, even before the word bioeconomy was used. The effort for supporting valorization of biomass for producing energy chemicals and materials started in the 90’s with a dedicated agency so-called AGRICE. In 2005, the launch of competitiveness clusters and among them the pole IAR (now Bioeconomy for Change – B4C), was a strong signal of a renewed industrial policy. More recently, France set up its own strategy for bioeconomy (2017) following by a first Action Plan (2019). Region Grand Est has been one of the first French regions to design a specific strategy, and even the Grand Reims decided to focus its territorial development priority on the bioeconomy. Also, we have a strong ecosystem recently reinforced by a “Plan de relance” (a kind of national recovery plan, a “New deal”, called France 2030. which is not specific but includes bioproducts and industrial biotechnologies. 

At the European level, however, there is still no real level playing field. And the energy and raw materials crisis has aggravated the disparity between fossil-based products and bio-biobased products. What is needed to fully support the transition to the circular bioeconomy?

From my point of view, as an academic player, the support for biobased products and sustainable technologies and the desire to promote public-private partnerships on these themes have become increasingly proactive and significant, both at national and European, even at demonstration level. Nevertheless, the transition to bio-based products requires the implementation of more coherent regulations taking into account the circularity of biogenic carbon and favoring the purchase of these products.

CEBB is a center of excellence. How much of your research becomes industrial application?

Launched in 2010 with the arrival of CentraleSupélec’s Chair of Biotechnology, followed with that of AgroParisTech’s URD ABI and NEOMA’s Chair of Bioeconomy (2012), and finally that of URCA’s Chair AFERE (2016), the CEBB has published ca. 400 scientific articles in prestigious scientific journals and filed ca. 20 patents. As we speak, a couple of license transfers have been signed and two start-ups have been created from innovations created within the CEBB (from CentraleSupélec and URD ABI). Another start-up and an industrial chair are also under construction (URD ABI). Chair of Biotechnology is involved in the Calipso project led by Sanofi and dedicated to the management of bioproduction processes, by developing cutting-edge technologies along with IT solutions that enable their exploitation. Moreover, one patent of URD ABI is currently being scaled-up as part of the RESOLUTE BBI Flagship project dedicated to the production of the green solvent Cyrene® using two pathways, a chemical one designed by Prof. James Clark’s team at York, and URD ABI’s biotechnological one. Finally, URD ABI’s portfolio of 5 patents on novel families of biobased UV filters is getting a lot of attention from global leading cosmetics companies.

In Europe we are still too used to think as individual states. How important is the collaboration between states and the creation of a European sentiment also in the bioeconomy to make the Old Continent innovative and competitive?

In the context of globalization, especially with regard to technological development and the global challenges we have to face, collaborations are necessary and must be encouraged at different levels. In Europe, we have the new PPP CBE which succeeds the BBI JU which has allowed the birth of several jewels, and probably more than the number initially planned. If we are optimistic, we can consider that we are on the right track and that many collaborations arise from the various conferences organized on the bioeconomy. Regarding collaborations between states, we need a “biodiplomacy” as suggested by Alfredo Aguilar and Christian Patermann, which could also accompany the aforementioned regulations applied at European level.

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