Antwerp and diamonds have had a long history, the Belgian city has been at the heart of the global trade since the 15th century and even today over 80% of the world’s rough diamonds (those that haven’t yet been cut or polished) pass through its diamond district. Today however, it’s not a traditional industry we are focussing on, but another the Port of Antwerp is building its position as a global nexus for, the fast-emerging circular economy. The Port is Europe’s second-largest seaport, handling over 200 million tons of freight a year with extensive facilities to handle and store all types of products and then move them on with rail, road and waterway links, so it’s perfectly placed to help overcome the bioeconomy’s challenges of scale and growth and supercharge it as we move into a new era of maturity and commercialisation.
What the Port of Antwerp has launched is the NextGen District, a huge plot in the port, that aims to be a global hub for the bioeconomy in the heart of Europe offering space, support, connections and logistics to grow businesses of all size.
To learn some more about the origins and objectives of the NextGen District, I spoke to Dries Van Gheluwe of the Port of Antwerp to find out more; “We have some great challenges, both as a Port and as a society to tackle climate change and we want to help contribute answers. Port of Antwerp has a very large petro-chemical cluster, with companies like TOTAL, BASF and Covestro already within the port but the opportunity arose with the closing of a General Motors factory in 2010 to create a space open only to those working to transition to a sustainable and climate neutral society.
“This space has become our NextGen District, now being built on 88 hectares (approximately 111 football pitches) and is divided in such a way as to offer opportunities to major players as well as startups and scale-ups. It incorporates facilities and testing grounds for those at demonstration stage, TRL level 6-8, to help them grow further, right up to free standing plots for more established industrial players” continued Van Gheluwe.
As Van Gheluwe has introduced, for companies taking space at NextGen District there are three stages of involvement each with access to resources and connections; NextGen Demo which offers support and space for those who have become ready to demonstrate their technologies, NextGen Park, for those who have scaled and want to expand further and finally NextGen Lots, which are tailor-made facilities on large plots of land.
These connections are key – they are both on an entrepreneurial and collaborative level – we know that the circular economy has a strong and genuine spirit of sharing and cooperation but also on a more practical level. The District has easy access to road and rail, and of course being within a Port, to waterways but it also has pipeline access for utilities and other feedstock products.
The team building the NextGen District has two pillars of the bioeconomy they are focussing on; the Process Industry, with companies producing molecules from sustainable biomass or from renewable or recyclable sources, or those involved with the production of raw materials or building blocks from recycled or waste flows and the Manufacturing Industry focussed on products or applications that contribute towards energy transition.
The set-up, scale and ambition of the District is impressive, but one of the most powerful and unique aspects of the project, is not just the passion that Van Gheluwe and the team displays for creating a major platform for change but how this commitment is underlined by the stringent criteria the Port are adopting for those who wish to take a place in the park.
“Those applicant companies must provide information, descriptions and documentation to prove that they are committed to working in the circular economy and their plans can reconcile people, ecology and the economy. By adopting these criteria as part of the application, and declining any companies that do not fulfil these aspects, we are putting down a strong marker on our genuine commitment, not just to the project and partners but to the principles of the circular economy and making genuine change” added Van Gheluwe.
Many of the stories we cover on our pages are about companies forming partnerships or securing investment to scale and grow whilst on the other side, the principle issue we hear holding back a wider proliferation of the circular economy is a lack of this scale and confidence in product or material delivery.
Unlike for diamonds, where the important details are minute, for the circular economy scale is the key issue for success and this hugely ambitious project in Antwerp can be a fantastic driver in growing a larger, more robust, and commercially viable circular economy.
There’s few as exciting projects in our industry as what the team at the Port of Antwerp’s NextGen District are building on the banks of the river Scheldt. They’ve already received lots of enquiries, and with the deadline for applications approaching on the 26th February, now is the time to contact the team to learn more and we’ll be sure to keep you updated on the emergence of this innovative hub that gives companies the connections, the space and the tools to grow.
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