“Out-of-box” thinkers. This is the phrase that Carlo Pettinelli, Director of Consumer, Environmental and Health Technologies at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, used to describe small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). He also maintained that SMEs were the backbone of the European economy and were “the big companies of tomorrow”.
In fact, most companies that are well known across the globe today started out as small companies and turned into big ones at some point in their business journey. Just look at the founders of the world’s biggest search engine who launched their company in a garage. In essence, this giant used to be an SME. SMEs are carriers of innovation and are core to the transition to the bioeconomy.
According to the Annual Report on European SMEs, SMEs employ almost 94.7 million people accounting for 67% of total employment in the EU-28 non-financial business sector, and for almost three-fifths (56.8%) of the generated added value.
Yet, just like a seed sometimes needs help to grow into a flower, SMEs also need a hand with their development, especially those involved in the bio-based industrial sector. This is because they often lack capital, but lead in innovation. Sometimes they also need guidance and expertise to develop their products. This is where the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) fits in.
BBI JU is a €3.7 billion institutional public-private partnership between the European Union and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) that invests in research and innovation aimed at developing a sustainable European bio-based industry.
BBI JU has been at the heart of addressing the specific needs of SMEs by providing what it calls “an environment conducive to the uptake of innovations and the incorporation of innovative actors into future chains and by offering the opportunity to work within a strong, international context”.
Bold and passionate individuals from the business sector are taking the BBI JU up on its strong offer, as demonstrated by the high numbers of SMEs participating in the organisation’s projects. Overall, 98% of BBI JU projects involved at least one SME. In terms of funding, 35% of BBI JU funding went to SMEs during the 2014-2018 period. And 471 SMEs were beneficiaries in 101 BBI JU projects between 2014 and 2018.
Examples of SMEs participating in BBI JU projects can be found in all sectors related to bio-based industries, including chemicals, textiles, engineering, aquaculture and waste management. In fact, due to its support, plastics are being diverted from landfill and being turned into construction materials, wood is being turned into textiles and bio-based adhesives are being used on wood panels.
One example of an SME getting support to develop its innovative products is Chimar Hellas. Since the 1990s, the Greece-based company has been developing bio-based adhesive systems for wood panels, by substituting their petrochemical raw materials with renewable ones derived from natural biomass materials and wastes.
By participating in the BBI JU programme via the EXILVA project, Chimar has been able to explore and evaluate the functionality and applicability of a new biomass-derived material (i.e. micro-fibrillated cellulose, MFC) in its adhesive systems and enrich its bio-based product technologies portfolio.
In addition, Chimar was able to be part of a strong industry-orientated team, involving a key partner in the field of MFC industrial production and supply. The aim of this was to help speed up commercialisation and market uptake of its technology.
“The work carried out by Chimar in the EXILVA project is mainly oriented to wood adhesives and their reinforcement with the use of MFC (…),” said a representative from Chimar. “If the use of such a bio-based material in adhesive systems for wood products proves beneficial, it could replace petrochemicals used for the same reason, thus creating new bio-based value chains.”
Once the EXILVA-based adhesives are accepted by the market, Chimar could increase its market outreach by 15%, resulting in an improvement of its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) by 40% within a three-year period.
Chimar is not the only company that BBI JU has helped to boost bio-based value chains: Croatia-based Mi-Plast has also received a boost to its innovation processes. It has been transforming plastics into new products since 1980. It also produces bioplastics. The company is currently the most successful Croatian industrial representative in the EU’s R&D H2020 programme. Mi-Plast participates in eight projects (including 5 BBI JU projects).
The company benefited from using the BBI JU’s expertise on intellectual property to boost its skills in this area and to help bring its products to the market.
“We believe that we are contributing to different KPIs and BBI JU goals through cross sector interconnections, creating something valuable and needed, for example new bio-based value chains for bioplastics,” said Filip Miketa, CEO of Mi-Plast.
Katty Fashion is also being supported by the BBI JU to create a new bio-based value chain for bio-based textiles. Through the NeoCel project it is aiming to manufacture a novel type of cellulose textile fibres in order to produce viscose materials for the clothing and textile industry. These viscose-based fabrics are increasingly used to produce fashion products because of their hygienic-functional qualities, similar to those made of natural fibres of cotton or silk. These fibres are also soft to touch and easy to iron.
So far, Katty Fashion has produced a series of prototype garments based on these new viscose materials.
“The NeoCel fibres are expected to be of higher quality than standard viscose but produced at lower operating cost and with lower environmental impact,” said Caterina Ailiesei, the founder and CEO of Katty Fashion, adding that the company predicted an increase in market uptake of its fibres once the project had finished.
EggPlant in Italy is also hoping that the BBI JU project it is involved in will have a major impact on the bio-based market. It reuses wastewater as raw material to manufacture, through a zero-waste process, eco-friendly, hi-tech and valuable bioplastic products. It participates in AFTERLIFE, a project which proposes a flexible, cost- and resource-efficient process for recovering and valorising the relevant fractions from wastewater.
All in all, the BBI JU is helping to support those working with renewable and waste materials, providing them with a unique opportunity to access tailored support in this exciting high-growth sector. And the project participants realise the importance of the organisation to help further the development of the bioeconomy in the EU.
“A sustainable European bioeconomy can give a major contribution for achieving Europe’s climate neutrality target”, wrote Pettinelli in the recent BBI JU report on SME participation. “One of the main enablers for achieving this transition are SMEs, first because SMEs are innovation hubs. They are the ‘laboratories’ already delivering disruptive ideas that have allowed a number of sectors into their 2.0 era. I have no doubt that once more it will be up to the SMEs to pave the way for the transition of our societies and economies towards climate neutrality.’
To find out more about the achievements of the BBI JU’s SME projects, please take a look at its latest publication.