Patrick Schiffers knows his metier. The CEO of the recently-formed joint-venture Synvina, between Avantium and BASF, has an extensive track record in the international monomer and polymer business, mostly with BASF. His educational background, however, is more in business management, marketing and psychology.
Mr. Schiffers, you were trained to be in general management or consulting. How did you wind up in the world of chemistry and material sciences?
‘Well, when I was graduating at the University of Mannheim in Germany, I already had the drive to go abroad, especially to Asia. The continent fascinated me. From a personal view, a career with a consultancy firm was an option. However, my mentor, a top manager at BASF, advised me not to choose consultancy as these jobs are typically local. A career with a multinational company would open doors abroad that otherwise would be closed. I ended up at Henkel, a renowned company that produces detergents among other products. I joined the operation in Thailand for a year. Then Henkel decided to carve out its chemical activities as it wanted to focus exclusively on consumer markets. In the newly-formed Cognis, I worked for another year in a performance management project until BASF asked me to join them. As BASF could offer opportunities in terms of professional development that Cognis couldn’t, the choice was easily made.’
Within BASF, you went into the intermediates business. For eight years, you were first marketing manager and later marketing director at BASF’s intermediates division in Asia (Hong Kong). Did this job more or less set you up to become CEO of Synvina?
‘Partly yes. From the viewpoint of general management, I have built up experience in setting up and managing both, specialty and commodity business in fast-growing and volatile markets. Also, I have had ample experience in establishing joint-ventures and, of course, had an international working background. It is important that you are able to acclimatize in unfamiliar cultures, not everyone is able to do so. Furthermore, my personal profile fits the job. From my time in Asia, I really enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit and the market dynamics in an emerging economy. It is in my nature to create and build up new business. So this package may have helped me to get the job at Synvina. Mind you, I was already involved in the contract negotiations with Avantium, so the appointment didn’t come as a complete surprise!’
So you are the perfect fit for this position. What is the fit between Avantium and BASF within Synvina?
‘Avantium has developed a very promising technology based upon which furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) can be produced and subsequent polymers such as polyethylenefuranoate (PEF). They have developed a strong patent portfolio and patent applications in this field and thus established a strong and leading position in this field. BASF has the expertise, the know-how and the experience to scale up technologies from the pilot stage into commercial production. Furthermore, the company has a global presence which makes it easier to roll out new products on the world stage. These competencies are needed to convince large brand owners we are the right partners to produce FDCA and PEF in industrial quantities.’
In terms of company culture, which culture will be dominant within Synvina?
‘None, if it is up to me. True, BASF has a history of 152 years and Avantium is relatively young. But Synvina’s head office is in Amsterdam, the planned factory is intended to be located in Antwerp and we’re aiming to further cooperate with an increasingly multinational workforce. Ideally, we can forge both cultures – the creative spirit of Avantium and the German Gruendlichkeit of BASF – into one Synvina-culture. In fact, the name Synvina has been derived from the words ‘synergy’, ‘vitality’ and ‘nature’. We didn’t hire a PR company for the name finding, but organized internal brainstorm sessions. With 120 (!) possible names, we decided to step back and look at our key strengths. This is when we chose Synvina. That exercise also had a bonding effect: if the colleagues collectively establish the company name, they ‘own’ it and don’t just use it.’
Will larger chemical multinationals increasingly become dependent on smal(ler) companies or start-up’s to make major strides into renewable chemistry?
‘Definitely. BASF is also active in renewable chemistry, both in drop-ins, for example with butanediol based on renewable feedstock, and completely new platform molecules. However, a considerable part of BASF is and will be geared towards fossil-based products for years to come. The short to mid-term decision making for biobased R&D-routes is often influenced by the crude oil price, as you can imagine. I believe the era has passed where companies solely could run on internal R&D. The world has become too complex for this. Therefore, multinationals are increasingly scouting technologies that have the potential to create large-volume markets.’
Talking about volumes, what is your outlook on the FDCA/PEF-market?
Initially, Synvina intends to build a reference plant for developing the FDCA and PEF markets with an annual capacity of up to 50,000 tons. We also target to license our technology and thus enable investments in industrial-scale production plants. Surely, one can look at the PET market and make a prediction of the market potential. The point is, however, that PEF offers better functionalities and barrier properties than PET. Therefore, PEF has the potential to be the product of choice not only in the PET but in the overall packaging market. In many segments, PEF can capitalize on its superior barrier properties. As the high-barrier segment within the packaging market is growing faster than the market as a whole, PEF in particular will benefit from this demand development. On the longer term, PEF’s market share will most likely expand at the expense of PET and other packaging materials as brand owners will increasingly opt for renewable and recyclable materials. Another aspect is that PET has suffered image-wise, as the material has been linked heavily with plastic waste, for example in our oceans. Globally, less than 10 per cent of all fossil-based plastics is being recycled. Ultimately, the target must be to increase recycling rates. Summing up, PEF is superior to any other packaging material: it is based on renewable feedstock, it has significantly better properties and it can be recycled in existing facilities, possibly in PET-streams.’
What needs to be done before these markets will be established?
‘A ton of work (laughs). We need to scale up our production processes which we are currently operating in our pilot plant at Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen (The Netherlands) which has been expanded recently. In short, we need to generate sufficient volumes to feed application development. For this stage, we have been and will be busy setting up value chain partnerships like for example for polymerisation, preforming and blow moulding. Containers or bottles are by far the largest application but we are successfully working on films and thermoforms as well. For example, Synvina will continue to work with companies like Toyobo and Mitsui in Japan. We will build on these relationships that Avantium has established to successfully develop and market PEF for packaging solutions.’
Finally, can you disclose the hurdles you are facing in scaling up?
‘Unfortunately, I can’t get into details regarding this matter but we are on schedule in terms of the planned scale-up of our production facilities. The expectations of the large brand owners are very ambitious in terms of timing and availability of biobased polymers. We aim at supplying larger volumes of PEF in the future. Most companies engaged with fast moving consumer goods, so-called FMCG-companies, do not realize that it takes a certain time to supply large volumes of biobased polymers to the market. One has to deal with regulations, technology development, applications, product development, marketing and – of course – scaling up. It took PET 50 to 60 years to be what it is now. We are definitely convinced that we will be faster.’