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The growth and innovation of the biobased economy in the Netherlands is receiving a significant contribution from 100 to 150 SME businesses, knowledge institutions and local governments in the Biobased Delta. The first tangible biobased products and applications are a fact and the demand for them is growing. For the Biobased Delta this ushers in a new phase.
Kelly van Bragt

The Biobased Delta has a twofold agenda. The large-scale transition programmes such as Biorizon, Sugar Delta and Redefinery attract a great deal of attention. On the other hand, you have smaller-scale bottom-up initiatives and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Biobased Delta. Peter Bijkerk, Business Developer at Impuls Zeeland: ‘We see a number of SMEs with huge potential, but the biobased economy is only at the start now.’ The Biobased Delta is therefore concentrating on supporting SMEs through valorisation programmes from the regions.

Dennis van der Pas, Business Developer at REWIN West Brabant, sees the benefit of stronger business development in the SME: ‘After all, providing stimulus to the SME led to the first tangible products.’ Henk Vooijs, Business Developer at Innovation Quarter South Holland, adds: ‘We also see developments that come more from the knowledge corner. What about the extract library, a unique collection of more than 2,200 plant extracts? Knowledge institutions are seeking contact with businesses increasingly often so that specific applications can be developed.’

Connecting with the business sector
It is difficult to estimate exactly how many businesses are a part of the Biobased Delta and which product group has the strongest representation. ‘On the one hand we see the establishment of new businesses that are centred on a biobased product, while on the other hand, other businesses develop a biobased line alongside their conventional product line,’ says Bijkerk.

Developments in the ‘Delta’ range widely and are incorporated in SME clusters. Local SMEs work jointly with educational and government partners on applications in one of the many clusters, which include natural fibres, coatings and biopolymers, and on bringing the innovation to the market. Jan Noordegraaf, general director of Synbra Technology BV in Etten-Leur and established SME entrepreneur in the Biobased Delta, is optimistic. ‘The expansion of Avans University of Applied Sciences with the Biopolymer Application Center (BAC) seems to tie in well with the needs of the local business community. So we support this development wholeheartedly.’ Since 1957 Synbra Technology has been occupied with the production of ‘expandable polystyrene’ and in 2007 started the production of BioFoam, the world’s first biobased foam that has received a Cradle-to-Cradle certificate.

Stimulating SME

The Biobased Delta can, and, according to Van der Pas, must, contribute to encouraging the SME in various ways. Van der Pas believes that an initial role lies in promoting the research infrastructure, such as laboratories, application centres and testing facilities, where SME entrepreneurs can test on a small scale whether things work or not. ‘Physical spaces and facilities have to be made available in the current phase for testing so that a proof of concept can be supplied for the products we have now.’

Henk Vooijs concurs with the importance of an extra boost for SMEs during the proof-of-concept phase: ‘Investment fund UNIIQ is helping businesses in South Holland by offering them seed capital to bridge the riskiest phase from concept to successful company.’

Then again, there are opportunities for the Biobased Delta to strengthen SMEs by ‘de-risking’ business cases. Thus HemCell BV has also covered its patents, entered into partnerships with chain partners (injection moulding, extrusion, production automation, etcetera) and carried out a good market analysis and feasibility studies. HemCell produces various biobased plastics from palm fibres, such as the Hemcell+50PLA, which is 100% biodegradable outdoors. Nico Osse: ‘We have put a good product on the market, price-wise and performance-wise. That is the only way for it to be attractive for other parties to co-finance.’ Support from Impuls Zeeland three years ago led to HemCell BV finding funding via the programme InnoGo!. Osse: ‘I was pleased we could carry out some of the research using this funding. But the total investment is much larger. I searched for innovative investment solutions as well and had success.’

Temporary VAT exemption

The government wants to procure biobased products increasingly often, so that it can fulfil the role of launching customer. The Province of Zeeland has anchored biobased procurement as a spearhead in its procurement policy. Calls for tender value the use of biobased products. Examples of implementation include bamboo clothing, biobased tree anchors and a biobased scooter.

Van der Pas: ‘It is important to enter into a dialogue with regional governments about how they can stimulate the local economy, instead of obtaining the products more cheaply from abroad. This is an essential step towards getting production to a satisfactory level and on a sufficiently large scale so that Dutch businesses can stand on their own feet.’

Bringing public parties and businesses together can also help in the permit process, finding the right location, financing and other factors for a successful business. Jan Noordegraaf thinks that many businesses do not yet dare take the step to biobased: ‘They are afraid of the typical “beginner’s problems” for which they can be held to account and that entail high costs. This step is taken much faster overseas.’ He believes it would help if the government for example offered a temporary VAT exemption for biobased and recycling.

Effect in retrospect

The Biobased Delta must furthermore continue to encourage the ‘meet-and-match’ activities such as the Biobased Delta Business Development Day (see box) to stimulate the cooperation between businesses, knowledge institutions and government, according to Van der Pas.

Aaik Rodenburg: ‘Through subsidy processes and network meetings, among other things, we became acquainted with new partners from the Biobased Delta, with which we now cooperate intensively. You usually only see the effect of this kind of business event in retrospect.’

Rodenburg Biopolymers BV has been in Oosterhout since 2003 and produces biobased raw materials for plastics. ‘The creation of the Biobased Delta is an added value for our profile in the region.’ Rodenburg Biopolymers also collaborates to a great extent with knowledge institutions both from the region and outside the region. According to Van der Pas, this is not an exception: ‘We see that universities like the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) mainly affiliate themselves with large-scale transition programmes, while knowledge institutions like the HZ University of Applied Sciences and the Center of Expertise Biobased Economy of Avans University of Applied Sciences tend to concentrate more on applications and collaborations with SMEs.’

Growing interest

One of the greatest hurdles businesses had to tackle in the emerging biobased economy was the lack of awareness in the market. ‘The market was totally unaware of the toxicological effects of packaging materials for food and suchlike,’ says Marco Duijvelaar from Green4Print in Halsteren, which produces sustainable non-toxic ink and other materials for the packaging industry. They were the first business in this product category in the world to receive Cradle-to-Cradle certification for this. ‘The idea that ink can be sustainable is a philosophy embedded in the DNA of our company identity. Sharing knowledge and creating awareness form a major component of the concept,’ says Duijvelaar.

Aaik Rodenburg does observe a slow change in mentality. ‘From 2003, little by little people started being more open to the idea of biobased products, but it only really gained a life of its own in 2007. As of last year, chain partners have also been coming to us every so often with questions.’


So the biobased market is growing steadily. How do the established SMEs guarantee themselves a spot in the future biobased economy? Aaik Rodenburg: ‘Rodenburg Biopolymers only makes raw materials, but we actively try to keep up with the market. We are working hard on closing the entire chain.’ At Green4Print, too, there is a proactive attempt to develop new markets and achieve breakthroughs. Duijvelaar: ‘One example is “flexo inks” on foil packaging and print ink for newspapers. Our ambition is also to look for sustainable alternatives for glues, paper, plastics and other packaging materials in collaboration with chain partners and to make the entire chain more sustainable.’

Besides innovation in products, Ferry Samuels also devotes time to innovation in marketing and sales to make his business, Eco-Point, future-proof. Eco-Point, also from Halsteren, develops and produces environmentally friendly cleaning and maintenance products for various sectors. ‘So many new sales channels have opened up through the Internet. We are looking for possibilities to make better use of social media and other channels to sell our products B2B.’

Involving the consumer

According to Van der Pas, biobased is a branch of sport that by definition goes beyond all sectors. ‘It once started in the Biobased Delta as an amalgamation of the agricultural and chemical sectors, but applications and products are applicable in several markets and sectors and that is what we see happening now.’

It is becoming increasingly important to provide a low threshold for the market to become involved in the biobased economy, as this creates new perspectives. One example of this is the Dutch Design Week, where the number of biobased products was represented strongly last month. It is a smart idea to display tangible biobased products and involve the normal citizen in this process of growing awareness, a thought Ferry Samuels also shares: ‘Currently we are in the pop-up store in Bergen op Zoom with our cleaning and maintenance products. It is wonderful to see which products are already being made. Now it is a matter of everyone embracing the success together and seriously getting to work to replace the petrochemical sector by biobased.’

Biobased Delta Business Development Day

Many old and new faces, 172 participants from the Netherlands and overseas, attended the 7th Biobased Delta Business Development Day. The day was held on 29 September in the Markiezenhof in Bergen op Zoom. Topics such as business development, financing and internationalisation received ample attention during the meetings, presentations, pitches and at the information market. Businesses from the Biobased Delta had the opportunity to showcase their company and to network. Dennis van der Pas: ‘The participants welcomed the day very positively. I think we have to continue to push these kinds of initiatives to get the right partners to find each other and speed up innovation.’