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'The global paradigm shift from oil-based towards bio-based materials represents a unique opportunity for Europe to kick start a world-leading competitive bioeconomy, having significant economic, environmental and societal benefits for the continent.' The Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking plays a pivotal role in this transition. Agro&Chemistry interviewed Executive Director Philippe Mengal about the recent past and future challenges ahead.
Lucien Joppen

Mr. Mengal, what is your role within BBI JU and has this organisation developed the way it should?

‘Well, I have been in office as from October 2015. My first objectives were to establish the organisation, recruit the team and implement tools, methodologies and processes, organise and promote the BBI JU and its second call for proposal and ensure the management of the project portfolio. It was successfully done and today BBI JU is already delivering its first results. It is playing a key role as the catalyst for the development of a sustainable bio-based industry in Europe. It is considered to be one of the most forward looking initiatives under Horizon 2020 and aims to achieve the highest leveraging of public funds of all the EU Joint Undertakings.’

What are the specific objectives of BBI JU?

‘To develop sustainable and competitive biobased industries in Europe, based on advanced biorefineries that source their biomass sustainably. The specific objectives are: first to demonstrate new technologies to fill the gap in existing value chains with concrete and well identified applications and markets; furthermore to develop business models integrating all economic actors along the value chain and – finally – set up flagship biorefinery plants at a commercial scale in order to keep the investments in biorefineries in EU and contribute directly to the deployment of the biobased industries.’

Is the public-privatepartnership model instrumental in realizing the aforementioned goals?

‘BBI essentially is about de-risking investment, enabling joint financial commitment and setting up jointly defined programmes by pooling resources from public and private sectors into a common platform. It is a question of alignment of resources, objectives and strategies. What was missing was the critical mass at European level in terms of scale of activity, excellence and potential for innovation. The sector is fragmented because it is not well organised, with organisations and companies that are not used to collaborate across industries and geographical regions. Most industrial sectors were used to working in silos. Fragmentation is also linked to geographical issues, such as location of feedstock which may not be centralised or potential biorefinery facilities which are not connected to an adequate supply chain or close to the end user of the finished biobased products after transformation.’

Will Europe be able to compete with other continents in establishing a mature biobased industry that is competitive in terms of R&D and industrial scale production? Will BBI JU contribute to this aim?

‘First of all, PPP’s are not exclusively a European affair. Other continents also employ similar strategies, such as North America. It is more important to focus on our strengths on than on our weaknesses. Europe has always been excellent in developing sciences and technologies in different sectors and especially in biobased industries. We have world leading companies in key technologies of industrial biotechnology. But when we look at the investment performed in large scale biorefineries corresponding to the full scale deployment of biobased production, Europe was late in the global race compare to North America, Brazil or China. These big countries have extensive biomass resources and benefit from R&D-investment programmes and a strong political will for the bioeconomy. For instance, Barack Obama declared during his second mandate that the bioeconomy is a major engine for American innovation and economic growth. Brazil clearly claims that it intends to become the worldwide number one in the bioeconomy. Europe has the potential to compete for this ‘crown’ but we – public and private enterprises – have to cooperate through sectors in order to establish commercial value chains on our continent. By doing this, Europe should be back in the race for becoming the strongest biobased industry and even become a leader in certain areas and value chains.’

In terms of geographical representation, is the BBI JU truly a pan-European initiative or are certain countries or regions better represented than others?

‘As to be expected with a new programme, take up rates have been higher with some Member States and Associated Countries who were already in positions to take advantage of the programme’s early Calls. The BBI JU, as a pan-European programme, is inclusive and engages with Member States, regions and areas that have massive potential for developing the biobased industries. The objective now is to widen the participation of countries, regions and stakeholders in the BBI JU-programme to leverage the EU’s full potential. European regions and cities will play an increasingly important role in implementing the bioeconomy as they come to understand the opportunities for developing a local bioeconomy. When regions support initiatives with a strong regional bioeconomy policy, they enable innovation to occur by bringing industry and research institutions together. Regions can foster the necessary support and infrastructure needed to capitalise on local natural resources, regional strength and capabilities.’

The first BBI JU-projects have been launched in 2015. Can you mention any successes already or is it too early a day?
‘No, far from it. There are examples of some new bioplastics, biolubricants and cosmetic ingredients. For the near future – 2020 – we set the bar high: ten new biobased value chains, five new building blocks based on biomass of European origin, fifty new biobased materials developed (TRL3), validated (TRL 4-5) or demonstrated (TRL 6-7-8) with BBI-projects. Furthermore, thirty new demonstrated ‘consumer’ products based on biobased chemicals and materials should be launched by then. For the time being, our main challenge for 2017 will be to run the organisation at full speed with a project portfolio multiplied by four, accounting for more than on-going 60 projects. Most important will be the call 2017 for which the topics will be public by the end of 2016. The call will be open in April 2017 with an Open InfoDay in Brussels on the 28th of April 2017. At the beginning of next year the revised SIRA (Strategic Innovation and Research Agenda) will be published. It will provide BBI JU with the direction for topics in our next three years Calls for proposals. As an industry-led programme, the new SIRA will look forward into areas which industry sees potential for including the so called blue (aquatic biomass) bioeconomy and brown (waste) bioeconomy.’