Advancing entrepreneurship and start-up initiatives for sustainable chemistry: Learning from case studies

Workshop in Berlin to forge new partnerships

Some 30 innovators, entrepreneurs and experts from around the world met on 14 September 2017 in Berlin, Germany, to share experiences and insights from sustainable chemistry start-up initiatives and companies. Participants identified opportunities for sustainable chemistry innovation and start-ups to act as a driver to support implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, for example in the areas of zero hunger, clean oceans, climate change and sustainable cities, and to contribute to the theme of the upcoming United Nations Environment Assembly in December 2017: “Towards a Pollution-free Planet”. The workshop was organized by UN Environment and the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Center (ISC3), in partnership with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and the Free University of Berlin. Additional financial support was provided by the Government of Germany.

International support for sustainable chemistry start-ups

In order to ensure that sustainable chemistry start-ups can unfold their full potential for addressing international chemicals, waste and pollution priorities, we need to give more attention and support to this emerging sector”, said Achim Halpaap, Chief of UN Environment’s Chemicals and Health Branch. Friedrich Barth, Director of the newly founded ISC3, announced that the ISC3 is committed to advance concrete activities in the coming years to support sustainable chemistry start-up companies.

Case examples demonstrate innovative potential of start-ups

Fourteen cases from around the world were presented in Berlin, demonstrating the great potential of start-ups to support action “Towards a Pollution-free Planet”. Examples included the use of biological methods to substitute mercury in artisanal gold mining; replacing hazardous potassium permanganate in jeans bleaching; design of continuous flow electrochemistry and biomimetic processes to substitute toxic agents in pharmaceutical production; use of photocatalyst to decompose water contaminants into non-toxic molecules using sun light; and others. All cases are available on the website of UN Environment.

Overcoming barriers to bring ideas to the market

Workshop participants engaged in vivid discussions to explore barriers and challenges that sustainable chemistry start-ups face in moving their ideas to concept, and from concept to market. These include, access to laboratory infrastructure, obtaining patents and licenses, securing capital, and gaining market access. While these challenges are common across regions, start-ups in developing countries often face particular challenges, such as a lack of basic laboratory infrastructure. Participants concluded that Governments and the international community can provide critical support needed to strengthen the enabling environment for sustainable chemistry start-up companies and to foster research and innovation. Curriculum change is one of these areas. As Prof. John Warner, one of the two founders of the field of green chemistry, highlighted, “training the next generation of sustainable chemistry entrepreneurs will require thorough reform of how chemistry is taught”. 

What’s next?

The workshop concluded that sustainable chemistry start-ups can bring valuable insights to the table in shaping global policy, including the intersessional process on the Strategic Approach and the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020. Follow-up action will therefore focus on engaging sustainable chemistry start-ups in relevant international discussions and exploring opportunities to strengthen the enabling environment for sustainable chemistry start-ups, for example by providing advisory services and enhancing access to finance. 

Meeting documents:

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Mr. Carlos Ocampo Lopez, presenting biological alternatives to mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining and the need for social innovation.

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Cristina Mottillo, McGill University discusses how supercritical CO2 can be used to avoid conventional solvents.

'' Prof. John Warner (middle), Warner Babcock Institute, emphasising the urgent need to reform chemistry curricula. Monica Becker, Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, on the left, Douglas Curtter, SAFIC, on the right.

'' Mr. Friedrich Barth (right) presenting ideas for follow-up action in the closing session.  Mr. Achim Halpaap (middle) and Ms. Petra Schwager (left).