Contributed by David Constable, Director, ACS Green Chemistry Institute®
In late January I had the opportunity to attend the LAUNCH forum. In case you are not familiar with LAUNCH, you can find out more about it here. This year the LAUNCH partners developed a green chemistry challenge and through a well-established process identified 10 innovators to participate in this year’s forum. These 10 innovators started by making a pitch to the LAUNCH council members in attendance and then rotated from group to group to solicit feedback. The purpose of bringing the innovators and the council together was to provide the innovators with connections to people and potential resources that might assist with moving their business forward. It’s really a simple process when you break it down, and it provides a great opportunity for innovators to extend their reach in a short period of time.
Being a part of the entire process brought home, once again, the difficulty in moving an innovation from proof of concept to commercialization. It seems to me that many think that when an innovation is “green,” it’s harder to move that kind of innovation forward than it is to move a “normal” innovation into the marketplace. Conversely, there are some who believe that because an innovation is “green,” it should enjoy either a price premium, or it will somehow be more attractive to investors, banks, etc. The reality is that any innovation in the chemical and allied industries is difficult to commercialize, and one should never bank on a price premium for something they think is greener or more sustainable than an existing product. Markets are markets and they’re pretty unforgiving. And while game-changing innovations are more likely to make it, there are no guarantees that they will.
I can’t highlight all the innovations that were presented but I thought I would highlight a few that I think are worth watching. First is Grow Plastics, a relatively simple innovation that lightweights a plastic item such as a cup, bowl, plate, a meat tray, etc., while still providing higher performance at a competitive cost to a plastic such as styrofoam. The fact that Grow Plastics uses PLA and no plasticizers is a definite “green” advantage, but what will capture the market is price and performance. Establishing and growing the market in the Northwest U.S. makes a lot of sense given moves to ban styrofoam.
Next is Bioamber, a company that is looking to produce succinic acid through sugar fermentation utilizing a modified yeast. Some might argue that yeast is a better platform than what close competitor Myriant uses, but both companies face an uphill battle in getting chemists to begin using succinic acid to create new chemicals and polymers. They also need to demonstrate that they have a reliable supply chain and can supply the volumes at the desired quality. The interesting thing is that despite examples of higher performance or the development of a more desirable property (hardness, durability, softness, etc.) of new molecules utilizing succinic acid both companies still face the uphill battle of displacing an existing product and supply chain that is tried, tested and has customer approval.
Next there is Ancatt, a potentially disruptive anti-corrosion technology that doesn’t use Cr or Zn. Ancatt was an ACS GCI Business Competition winner in June of 2012 and their technology has all the appearances of being a winner. The challenge here is for the company to find a trusted partner to help move this from limited concept demonstrations to widespread commercial use. It is challenging for any innovator to move from the laboratory to pilot and full-scale production, and in an entrenched industry like the painting and coatings industry, there isn’t a simple or clear path. Like many other technologies, breaking into a low-margin commodity business is extraordinarily challenging, no matter how disruptive the technology.
Finally, there is Mango Materials, a company that is looking to make a biodegradable plastic, PHA, from waste methane at wastewater treatment plants. There are a variety of issues with moving this from demonstration to scale, but it appears that Mango Materials is making good progress. It is exciting to see waste methane that is generally not being well utilized at the moment and converting it into a plastic that is biodegradable without the higher temperature composting requirements of PLA. PHA still has a number of uphill battles as a plastic, but Mango Materials appears to have identified a commercial use that represents a great starting place for establishing a market and a steady cash stream that they can build on and diversify into other markets. If they manage to sort out the pilot plant funding, I think we can expect great things from them in the future.
It is always great to see innovations and innovators who are making inroads towards implementing green chemistry and engineering in business. I remain optimistic that these companies will make great progress and have a very positive impact on the world. I hope to see this trend accelerate.
As always, please do let me know what you think.
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