The 2018 finals of Imagine Chemistry recently took place in Gothenburg, Sweden. Ten teams were selected to continue collaborating with AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals or one of our partners. We asked the winners to share their thoughts on Imagine Chemistry and working with AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals. Here we speak with the team from Fraunhofer UMSICHT.

“We had our mentor, the engineers, marketing, regulations – getting all these people together is not easy even if you want to do it within a company. To discuss our technology with so many people in two days was really excellent.”

Team name: Fraunhofer UMSICHT
Team members: Axel Kraft and Martin Peters
Location: Germany
Mentor: Jamilla Nilsson
Challenge area: Zero-footprint surfactant platforms
Award won: Partner support Lux Research

The team from German research institute Fraunhofer UMSICHT has developed a cost-competitive catalytic technology to convert sustainable raw materials into materials that can be used for surfactants. In doing so, they can drastically lower the environmental impact of surfactant production. The resulting surfactants can be used in a variety of applications, such as detergents for washing cars and cleaning windows.

Before he took a role at Fraunhofer UMSICHT, Axel Kraft worked in R&D for AkzoNobel’s Performance Coatings business for 13 years at sites in Germany, the US, and the Netherlands. At Fraunhofer UMSICHT, Axel leads the Biorefinery/Biofuels department. While the basis for their Imagine Chemistry solution came from Axel, over the past 10 years it has been elaborated upon by the members of his core team, including current PhD student Martin Peters, resulting in a series of patents. In the video below, shot midway through the event, Axel gives a bit of background into their project and what they wanted to get out of Imagine Chemistry.

Imagine Chemistry 2018 winners - Fraunhofer UMSICHT

The team was happy to win a prize, and also happy to quickly learn more about AkzoNobel. Axel notes, “We had our mentor, the engineers, marketing, regulations – getting all these people together is not easy even if you want to do it within a company. To discuss our technology with so many people in two days was really excellent.” Martin adds, “It was a very professional way to get to know the company.”

The team especially appreciated AkzoNobel’s collaborative approach. Axel explains, “Our mentor revealed details we could not get if we would just do cold calling and have a meeting with someone,” Axel explains. “At some point someone said, ‘If we don’t tell you what we need, we can’t expect to get anything off the ground together.’ That open approach and mindset was quite helpful.”

As a former employee, Axel finds the Imagine Chemistry approach refreshing. “Open innovation was not in place 11 years ago, and even if it had been it would not have been the focus of the entire business. Back then, we had business units that were competing against each other and did not see the company as a whole. Now it seems very different. Company thinking, cross business solutions, and working with external parties is a good approach.”

The team has a history of spinning out companies, but for now they are focused on the shorter term. Axel explains, “We would like to cooperate with AkzoNobel to create products and eventually license out either directly or via a spinoff.” Martin elaborates, “Our vision is to bring this technology to market in the next 5 years.” This is not to say no dreaming goes on. As Axel explains, “I still remember that in the beginning with my first PhD student, Andreas, we talked about purchasing an island, to push us a bit. That’s not out of mind.”

To get started, the team will send samples to AkzoNobel’s business in Sweden for testing. They will also work with Lux Research to talk to potential value chain partners, for example companies selling final products using intermediates made by AkzoNobel that could be based on their technology. Stay tuned to find out how their collaboration progresses!