“If you want to bring a new product to the market, it’s important to find partners to complement your capabilities and to learn from them.”
Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant (BBEPP) in Ghent, Belgium, is an independent, state-of-the-art facility that operates from a laboratory level to a multi-ton scale. Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant is a service provider for process development, scale-up and custom manufacturing of bio-based products and processes. A wide and flexible spectrum of modular unit operations enables us to translate your bio-based lab protocol into a viable industrial process.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With. Please summarise your role and what you specialise in?
Muriel Dewilde (MDW): I talk to companies with a wish to scale-up their innovative bio-based products and discuss their objectives and how we can realise them. It’s a privilege to help companies in this phase of their product development, because the results of piloting are very tangible. Filling the first barrel of a new product and sending it out for application testing is very exciting and rewarding after years of research.
LG: Before going into your current role, what did you used to do?
MDW: I worked in starch industry for ten years as a process engineer involved in piloting and starting-up production lines in the wheat biorefinery plants of Tate and Lyle and Tereos. I started out as a freelancer at the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant buying equipment for what is now the multipurpose pilot plant. When we started the first projects for customers in 2010, I became business development manager. We gradually started-up parts of the plant to serve the first customers while we were still buying and installing other units. By 2013 we were break-even, and in the mean time we’ve expanded and grown to 88 employees running tens of projects in 24/7 operations.
LG: What trends have stood out for you so far this year in your sector?
MDW: The success of several bio-based products on the market, such as PLA and biosurfactants. It’s a major boost for the entire bio-based economy to see some products take-off successfully, despite the very low oil prices. More examples will follow, as many promising products are in the regulatory phase and almost ready to enter the market. Examples are non-animal proteins, bio-stimulants and bio pest control products, bio-solvents, flavours and fragrances.
LG: How do you get all your partners to work in a cooperative way?
MDW: Good communication is crucial in all our collaborations. It’s important to clearly communicate your expertise and strength to find the right complementary partners, to define a project with realistic objectives and the right expectations, to demarcate responsibilities, flexibly adapt to results and opportunities by communicating closely and frequently throughout the collaboration. Enjoying the contact with people from different backgrounds, sectors and countries always helps for a good understanding.
LG: What are your main challenges in scaling up bioprocesses for pre-treatment of biomass, for example?
MDW: Breaking the ligno-cellulosic structure to reactive lignin monomers, fermentable sugars and/or functional cellulose is a great technical challenge. Both equipment and (bio)-catalysts are being developed to overcome this challenge in an increasingly economic way, but until now expensive equipment and a lot of energy and expensive processing aids are required. The logistics of low density perishable biomass are another challenge. We invested in a wide range of equipment to flexibly adapt the pre-treatment process to the biomass type and to the further conversion process. This process integration reduces the production cost from biomass to final refined product.
LG: What advice would you give to somebody starting out in the bio-based sector?
MDW: If you want to bring a new product to the market, it’s important to find partners to complement your capabilities and to learn from them. Collaboration is in the DNA of the bio-based economy: companies, products, production lines and markets are not yet established, so companies have to combine forces and expertise to realise the switch from a fossil to a biobased economy. There are many great conferences such as WBM where you can meet partners. Europe stimulates collaborations through funding programs like Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe (in the next years). Shared service pilot facilities like ours help you to scale your process and produce the first tonnes without the need of investing in your own pilot installations. Consultants and specialised laboratories can help with regulatory aspects of your product, and for applications and marketing you can work with customers, distributers or companies interested in buying your technology.
It will take time and many valuable experiences and learnings before you reach success, so stick at it!
LG: Has Covid-19 impacted on your operations at all?
MDW: We’ve been able to continue the production without any delays until now. We were lucky that the Belgian government set-out clear rules very early in the crisis. Our team has quickly adapted to social distancing in the plant, and working and communicating from home, so our operations are relatively unaffected. The European Commission announced they will be very flexible regarding deadlines and extension requests for funded projects, which is very helpful in case we would need to reschedule trials due to raw materials not arriving, people becoming ill, or partners not being able to deliver. Let’s hope everyone remains understanding and pragmatic, and that everyone takes good care of themselves and the people around them.
LG: Out of all the topics you cover, which one is seeing strong demand?
MDW: That’s difficult to answer because the topics we cover are so broad. We’re running many of projects on production of high value components such as dietary fibres, proteins or other nutritional or functional ingredients from abundant but underutilised biomass streams. We always had an important part of our activities in biotechnology: production of molecules such as human milk oligosaccharides, monomers for bioplastics production, insect repellent or plant protection compounds with engineered enzymes or microorganisms. With the new tools for protein and metabolic engineering, that’s certainly a field that will continue to push boundaries.
LG: What one thing would you like the bio-based industry to do better and why?
MDW: To quantify the sustainability of its products and the job potential of its companies and industries, and communicate clearly about it. That’s important to convince the public and politicians that sustainability and jobs can go hand in hand, and that legislation is required to be able to compete against industries and products that currently don’t pay for pollution.
We also see, in our company and companies of our customers and partners, how motivated people are to contribute to a sustainable economy. Transmitting that enthusiasm is also very important and justified!
LG: What’s your favourite sustainability product?
MDW: Biosurfactants are a very nice example of the power of biotechnology. Many variants with different applications are produced by different microbial strains, some engineered, some not. For example, eco-friendly sophorolipids are naturally produced with very high production rates by a wild-type yeast strain.
Muriel Dewilde will be speaking at the World Bio Markets Conference, the leading assembly for the bio-based economy, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in November.