BlueChem incubator speeding up chemical sector’s green revolution


The first building to open at Antwerp’s new Blue Gate business park is an incubator helping eco-minded chemical start-ups to get off the ground

‘Chemical’ is a four-letter word

The times are a-changing in the chemical sector, with sustainability becoming increasingly crucial. This is not only to keep the industry relevant and modern as global priorities shift, but to combat the bad rap attached to the very word “chemical” itself.

Enter BlueChem incubator, which offers young chemical companies with an eco mindset the infrastructure and services they need to grow and establish themselves on the market. It is the first building to be completed in the carbon-neutral Blue Gate Antwerp business park.

Delayed by a month because of the corona crisis, BlueChem opened its doors at the beginning of May. “There was a significant need for our kind of support,” says BlueChem’s manager Leentje Croes. “Starting up an enterprise in the chemical business is a lot more complicated than, say, in the IT sector. The R&D process is very capital-intensive, which is why we invested so much in lab facilities – to help companies experiment and innovate.”

Under one roof

Seven start-ups and scale-ups are currently at work at BlueChem, which has space for about 20. The four-floor building consists of 26 offices, 18 laboratories, 20 co-working spaces and several meeting rooms.

It’s funded by both the government of Flanders and the EU. The City of Antwerp provides the entrepreneurs with financial help to equip their labs through the BlueChem Kickstart Fund.

The start- and scale-ups will benefit from the expertise of partner institutions in the building, such as umbrella agency Catalisti, which helps chemicals and plastics manufacturers transition towards green industrial processes. They also get access to a large network of partners that can provide advice on all kinds of subjects, including legal and financial matters.

While the companies in the incubator are in the perfect position to learn from each other, they can also pick up much knowhow from several big players in the chemical sector, such as BASF and Ineos. Many of those chemical granddaddies are located close by – at the port of Antwerp, which houses one of the largest chemicals clusters in the world.

“These big plays can, however, also benefit from their smaller counterparts,” explains Croes, “which are more agile and can quickly try out new ideas – something that takes more time in larger companies.”

She says that BlueChem’s very existence is another sign that the common negative perception of the chemicals sector is no longer in line with reality. “Companies have made great strides in developing cleaner production methods over the last couple of decades. Mistakes were certainly made, but the sector is now strongly focused on a sustainable approach. That approach also saves them money – energy costs, for example – so that’s an additional motivation.”

In the worst cases, chemical companies used to burn their wastewater, which was highly polluting and inefficient

- Dirk Leysen of Inopsys

BlueChem’s manager refers to figures from Essenscia, Belgium’s umbrella organisation for the chemistry and life sciences sectors. “Production has tripled since 1990, but its energy consumption only increased by 37%,” she says. “Chemical companies are also developing materials and techniques that help save energy and cut CO2 emissions in other industries. These are key solutions for major social challenges, like the climate crisis.”

The start- and scale-ups in BlueChem aim to further accelerate this sustainable trend. Inopsys, for example, offers companies in the pharmaceutical and fine chemical sectors solutions to clean up their wastewater, so they can then re-use the clean water afterwards.

“In the worst cases, chemical companies used to burn their wastewater, which was highly polluting and inefficient,” says Dirk Leysen, R&D manager at Inopsys, a spin-off of KU Leuven. “But that’s not acceptable anymore.”

Inopsys develops mobile units that extract harmful substances from wastewater. Sometimes those substances can be recycled as well, such as palladium, a very rare metal.

Another BlueChem resident, Creaflow, develops so-called flow reactors for the pharmaceutical and fine chemical industries. They work using light instead of heat.

“Rather than having to heat chemicals up to 100°C, our technique enables large-scale production at room temperature, which saves huge amounts of energy,” explains the Creaflow head of R&D, Hannes Gemoets. The company, a subsidiary of Ecosynth in Deinze, is currently working to make its reactors more widely deployable.

Food 2.0

Two other enterprises at BlueChem, Peace of Meat and Calidris Bio, work on food processes, such as alternative sources of protein. Peace of Meat cooks up cultured fat and liver for vegetarian products.

“The fat is crucial to bring both the flavour and texture of meat alternatives to a higher level,” says co-founder Eva Sommer, originally from Austria. “With our liver cells, we aim to produce animal-free foie gras.”

Calidris Bio on the other hand is developing sustainable proteins through a fermentation process similar to brewing beer. It will initially be used as animal feed.

“We are first concentrating on feed for aquaculture,” explains co-founder Lieve Hoflack. Fish are now often fed with soy and fish meal. “Soy farming requires a lot of land and leads to large deforestation projects, for example in the Amazon forest,” she continues. “We use renewable resources, need much less water and produce very little CO2.”

The enterprise Triple Helix does not make products itself, but supports sustainable chemistry initiatives with its capital and management experience. “We help them to find investors that are not looking for short-term profits,” says managing partner Steven Peleman. “Our entrepreneurial advisory activities are also designed to make things happen.”

In about 18 months, the sustainable chemical sector in Flanders will get another boost; the pre-incubator BlueApp will open its doors at Blue Gate as well. BlueApp is one of three facilities that Antwerp University wants to use to strengthen its relationship with industry. The others, The Beacon and Vaccinopolis, deal with smart city solutions and vaccine development, respectively.

“Blue­App will be an open platform where research institutes and companies have access to state-of-the-art facilities, to work on new projects for the chemical industry,” explains manager Quinten Van Avondt. “We want to help launch new technological developments on the market, but also to collaborate with companies on new solutions the market actually needs.”

Our green corridor is a nature-friendly area of 12 hectares linking the park with the city of Antwerp and the Hobokense polders

- Peter Garré of Bopro

When developments lead to marketable products, their teams can possibly move to BlueChem, where they can prepare for production on a larger scale. As for companies already located at BlueChem that outgrow the incubation stage, they have the option to stay around and set up facilities elsewhere at the Blue Gate business park.

The site, located on the Scheldt river in the Hobokense polders nature area, used to be the heart of Antwerp’s petroleum industry. Just four petroleum companies remain in the area, alongside the business park. The ground where the park sits was heavily polluted and is in the midst of a thorough clean-up. That is about two-thirds complete.

Blue Gate Antwerp is a circular carbon-neutral business park, with strict sustainable requirements for its residents and close connections with its surrounding environment. “You can take that connection quite literal in the case of our green corridor, a nature-friendly area of 12 hectares linking the park with the city of Antwerp and the Hobokense polders,” says Peter Garré, managing director of real estate developer Bopro. “We also focus on optimal water management and extensive cycling infrastructure.”

Bopro is part of the public-private partnership responsible for Blue Gate Antwerp, which also includes the government of Flanders, City of Antwerp and DEME Environmental Contractors (DEC).

Apart from BlueChem and BlueApp, courier company DHL is also setting up new facilities at Blue Gate. DHL is currently building its CityHub, a distribution centre that will deploy more eco-friendly modes of transport, like the Cubicycle. That’s an electric cargo bike equipped with a container, which can transport up to 125 kilograms of goods. Logistics specialist Montea is already active at Blue Gate Antwerp as well.

Photos courtesy Stad Antwerpen