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A transition to a biobased/circular economy requires the public sector to have a proactive and facilitating attitude. The same applies, even more so, to the regional government. The Province of Limburg has chosen to play a decisive role and has set the standard high: it has set its sights on a leading position on an international level in more sustainable chemicals and materials.
Lucien Joppen

In 2012, exactly five years ago, a number of parties – the Province of Limburg, Greenport Venlo, Maastricht University and Chemelot, with the support of Industriebank LIOF – signed a declaration of intent. The signing was the kick-off for a ‘competition’ to catapult Limburg into a European top region in the biobased economy.
Two years later, Source B. was introduced during the national network meeting Biobased Economy in Venlo. Source B., a networking organisation, endeavours to bring the individual parties from the business community and the knowledge community together. The focal points are components and residual streams from biomass in the primary sector, and new materials based on green building blocks. The important point is that the entire value chain is involved: from crop to end product.
At the table are Emmo Meijer, figurehead of Source B. and Top Sector Chemistry, among other things, and Twan Beurskens, member of the Provincial Executive for Economy and Knowledge Infrastructure. The two gentlemen look back and to the future on the province’s ‘voyage of discovery’ to the economy of the future.

Mr Beurskens, why has the Province of Limburg chosen to participate in the race for a ‘biobased’ leading position in chemicals/materials?

‘To explain that, I have to go back to the peak of the crisis, in 2012. In that year, the Netherlands and Limburg as well felt the impact of the ailing economy only too well. Unemployment in Limburg hovered at around 8 percent. As a province we were faced with a fundamental choice: how were we going to mobilise our resources to build a futureproof working and living environment? There were several currents of feeling: one suggested abandoning the manufacturing industry and aiming at a combination of leisure and business services. For my part, I particularly liked the idea of strengthening the manufacturing industry by placing a heavy emphasis on innovation. In the Netherlands it is difficult for us to compete on price with other countries or regions. That is why businesses increasingly need to develop new processes and/or products to have any relevance on the market and to create added value. If you keep doing the same thing, you will eventually end up in a situation where price is the competitive factor. Biobased/circular concepts offer prospects of new materials and revenue models which can help businesses to stand out. Limburg has a strong chemicals cluster and an active primary sector. So we are already well prepared to play a leading role in this respect.’

A transition as drastic as the (partial) change from fossil to renewables is not a surprise, however. In actual practice it turns out that many business cases are lagging behind from a market or technological point of view.

(Emmo Meijer) ‘You cannot expect everything to be in order within the space of five to ten years. These kinds of transition processes take decades. I have personal experience of how long it takes for large-scale movements to get going, at DSM among other places, for instance the change of policy from pure chemistry to a hybrid business model with biotechnology. Whatever the case, the lights on the horizon are clear, at least as far as the objectives for making our society and economy more sustainable are concerned. In concrete terms for the chemical sector this means that 15 percent of the feedstock (editor’s note: and 10 percent of recycled raw materials) must be made up of biomass in 2030. We are currently in the exploratory phase and it is not yet entirely clear how we are going to achieve the above objectives. It is more of a lottery with the details becoming clearer in the coming years. The same applies to the chemicals and materials project portfolio which has been built up in Limburg.’

Can you already provide an interim evaluation of the current projects? Can you already identify winners?

(Meijer) ‘I wouldn’t want to burn my fingers on that one at this stage. What is certain, is that an impressive portfolio has been built up in a short time, with the project value amounting to dozens of millions of euros. Because the projects involve different TRLs, I cannot and do not want to make any predictions. As is usually the case, a number will not make it. The haze will dissipate in the coming years and we will be able to apply more specific focus. And this is also a natural process, in which some projects will come up against market or technological barriers and others will find their way to the market. We must also put the importance of biobased into perspective and not make it bigger than it is or can become. The chemical and manufacturing industries will continue to rely mainly on fossil raw materials. Biobased may be a major part of the puzzle in making these sectors more sustainable, but this will certainly be in combination with other approaches. The fossil CO2 will have to be restricted as much as possible to a closed cycle, and the energy required for these processes can be disconnected from fossil and become fully “renewable”.’

Mr Beurskens, the Province of Limburg has invested heavily in the past few years in facilitating developments in four top sectors in Limburg (chemicals/materials, life science, agrifood, big data/smart services), including chemicals and materials. Do you have the same patience as Mr Meijer?

‘Yes, we consider it a long-term investment which will run for a period of ten years. The province has taken on a highly active role in facilitating the above sectors, financially and in kind. For example, we have funded industrial estates and campus buildings. But it is not only the euros which count; there also has to be an effective public administration which is proactive and provides service for the stakeholders in the transition process. We have been doing this with great success in recent years. As a Province, we don’t want to be prescribing the line of march. The businesses and knowledge institutes do that themselves. Nor are we going to be settling accounts immediately. Of course we expect our investments to translate into matters such as economic growth, reduced contraction and a liveable environment in Limburg. In this phase, however, we are still working hard on fleshing out the ecosystem. The fact is that in the past years we have already staked out the necessary areas, with the establishment of the Brightlands Campus organisation, the opening of Center Court at Chemelot and the many public-private research programmes, for example InSciTe. We see that businesses have also become more active in this area, thanks to the investments by the public sector. Not a single relevant business has packed up and left since the crisis started. What’s more, most of the businesses are investing again and many new businesses are being established. In 2016, 90 hectares of industrial estate were developed in Limburg. That makes us leaders in the Netherlands. We are also seeing good results in employment and contraction.’

Mr Meijer, is a public-private construction an absolute precondition for giving shape to the biobased transition?

‘I am convinced of the effectiveness of the triple helix approach. This often involves new value chains for mainly SME businesses and new knowledge that needs to be developed. That requires support from the public sector. It is not simply a matter of sharing risks, but also of acquiring knowledge and understanding from the education and research world. Over the past years we have worked hard to build up this ecosystem, with the Brightlands Campus organisation forming the backbone which connects all the top sectors. For biobased, that means Chemelot and Greenport Venlo. Now we are also seeing that these initiatives are stirring up interest in the SME. For instance, millions of euros of project value have been realised in the Greenport region in a short time, with half of that invested by SME entrepreneurs. A good example is the biorefinery initiative (editor’s note: Bio Treat Center). This illustrates how the spirit of enterprise in the province is not reserved solely for the larger players. It is precisely also the SME businesses in the primary sector and the manufacturing industry which want to invest in these new innovations. But, as I said earlier, that requires an ecosystem in which they can flourish, which is the case in Limburg. That makes us unique in the Netherlands.’