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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
AkzoNobel, Startups Sustainably Solving Chemical, Packaging Challenges

Finding new post-consumer uses and solutions for products is critical for making the shift towards a more circular economy, but more and more companies are turning their focus to the early stages of product production and development, effectively addressing the sustainability question before it becomes a problem.

Global paints, coatings and specialty chemicals company AkzoNobel is launching Imagine Chemistry, an opportunity to partner with startup firms, students, research groups and career scientists from across the world to jointly exploit their knowledge of chemistry and solve several real-life chemistry-related challenges.

The challenge is part of an integrated approach to further deploy AkzoNobel’s innovation capability in support of its growth ambitions. The company believes that there is tremendous potential even in mature chemistries, and the challenge aims to tap into that as well as uncover new opportunities.

Imagine Chemistry, launched in conjunction with KPMG, aims to address a number of specific societal challenges as well as finding new sustainable opportunities for AkzoNobel businesses. It will focus on finding solutions within the following five areas:

  • Revolutionizing plastics recycling
  • Wastewater-free chemical sites
  • Cellulose-based alternatives to synthetics
  • Bio-based and biodegradable surfactants and thickeners
  • Bio-based sources of ethylene

In addition, there are “open challenges” for broad ideas in two further areas: highly reactive chemistry and technology, and sustainable alternatives to current technologies. All challenges are business-driven and should go commercial within a three-to-five-year period.

“Our world is made of molecules and we believe that chemistry, mastering the elements, is essential to making the world a better place,” explained Peter Nieuwenhuizen, RD&I Director for AkzoNobel’s Specialty Chemicals business.

“To get there, we believe open innovation will be vital, seeking ideas both internally and externally to advance our technology and mutually gain from creative thinking. Imagine…with all of our knowledge of chemistry, we can work together to solve some of life’s biggest problems. It’s a great opportunity for everyone to get involved.”

A dedicated online challenge platform has been launched, operated by KPMG, where participants can submit their ideas and solutions. Anyone who registers will get feedback from AkzoNobel chemical experts.

The challenge will give the winners the chance to see their ideas become a commercial reality. “We will provide access to customers, investors, subject matter experts, mentorship and an accelerator program, along with additional support. The collaboration could take on many forms: a joint development agreement, having AkzoNobel as a launch customer, organizing partnerships, or investing in your startup. Our ultimate goal is to innovate together,” Nieuwenhuizen added.

“Imagine Chemistry is just the latest example of the commitment of AkzoNobel to fostering innovation, and also to doing innovation differently,” he added. It follows a recent decision by the company to participate in a €50 million collaborative venture capital fun, run by Icos Capital, that will focus on investing in early stage chemical and clean technology innovation startups, as well as plans to establish an Open Innovation Center at the AkzoNobel Chemicals Research Facility in Deventer, the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, German startup Leaf Republic has developed a new sustainable packaging product that could be the solution the food industry has been waiting for — and it’s made out of leaves.

“We started in 2013 as a start-up with research into sustainable packaging,” explains Carolin Fiechter, CFO of the Leaf Republic. After three years of research and prototypes, they have made so much progress that a fully-fledged production is already possible. Since September, they have been producing leaf-based packaging on a commercial scale. It mainly concerns tableware and packaging for salads.”

To produce its revolutionary product, the company relies on a special type of leaf imported from Latin America and Asia that contains enough cellulose to be pressed into a shape and remain green after drying. Each product — which is manufactured in Germany — consists of three layers. The outer two are comprised of leaves, while the inner layer is made of cardboard. The cardboard is made from the waste resulting from the processing of the leaves rather than virgin materials. Additionally, there are no synthetic additives, no coloring and no glue involved in the production process, and according to the company, the packaging biodegrades fully within 28 days.

Partnering with NGOs and other organizations in the countries from which they import leaves, Leaf Republic is also able to ensure ethical standards for their supply chain. “We work together with NGOs and other organizations in the countries where we import; therefore, we are sure that the women picking the leaves receive a fair salary and make an honest product,” explained the company’s CFO.

The response to the product has thus far been positive. While the company is currently capable to keep up with demand, Leaf Republic is already looking ahead to the future. “We need to increase the production to be able to meet the demand in the future. It’s still a niche product, but there is a huge market out there. We believe it has enormous potential, because we don’t need to cut any trees to make paper,” said Fiechter.