Antwerp, 4 May 2021 – 108 jobs, 18 innovative start-ups and businesses, the home for coordinating the Moonshot innovation programme for a climate-friendly industry and multiple specific projects for applying breakthrough technologies in industrial pilot installations. One year after opening, BlueChem, the first incubator for sustainable chemistry in Belgium, has generated impressive figures and made significant achievements. The available lab and office space is already half-filled, conversations with new start-ups are currently underway and the initiative is also gaining greater international resonance.

Providing optimum support for start-ups, and scale-up so that they can successfully develop their promising chemistry innovations and expand them to an industrial scale – that is the mission of BlueChem, the incubator for sustainable chemistry situated in the Blue Gate Antwerp ecological business zone. Even though it was opened in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, the first year seems to have run relatively smoothly. With 18 tenants – 10 start-ups, 6 partner businesses, and innovation partners Catalisti and VITO – the occupancy level has exceeded expectations.

CO2 as a raw material and efficient proteins

Two new start-ups joined in March. A-Maze, a recruitment agency that is dedicated to the port industry and that focuses on attracting employees with the right skills for the energy and climate transition and the circular economy, and D-CRBN, a spin-off from the University of Antwerp, which is working on an industrial process that uses plasma technology to convert captured CO2 into a raw material for the chemical sector.

The most recent acquisition, since 1 May, is PUXANO. This young company uses innovative nano- and biotechnology to improve and accelerate protein research. The patented technology can also be applied to the development of medicines, the use of antibodies or as a catalyst for making various production processes more efficient and sustainable.

Taking water purification and plastic recycling to a higher level

The innovative prowess of BlueChem has now been put on the map both at home and abroad. Inopsys, which purifies waste water from chemical and pharmaceutical companies and recuperates valuable metals such as zinc and palladium, realised capital growth of around EUR 5 million for international expansion. Peace of Meat, a pioneer in cultivated meat, was taken over by Israeli company MeaTech 3D and is working from BlueChem on further commercialisation. Triple Helix has specific plans to build a recycling facility of the latest generation in the port of Antwerp in order to recycle polyurethane (PU) from used mattresses or car seats into insulation material and, in the long term, to make the use of polyurethane entirely circular.

The trail-blazing technologies from Calidris Bio (nutritious proteins for producing animal food on the basis of renewable energy and captured CO2) and Creaflow (photochemistry with revolutionary flow reactors that ensure lower energy and raw material consumption in chemical and pharmaceutical production) are also generating increasing interest. IBEVE installed a unique scanning electron microscope in BlueChem for accurate analysis of asbestos fibres and other dust particles, and Arpadis is working in the incubator on climate-friendly alternatives for raw materials from paints, adhesives and insulation.

Unique ecosystem for sustainable chemistry

All these innovations, the close collaboration with universities and research centres, and the strong connection with partner companies Air Liquide, BASF, Borealis, ExxonMobil, INEOS and Vopak make BlueChem a European hotspot for sustainable chemistry. This has not gone unnoticed by The Financial Times. It awarded the city of Antwerp the FDI Strategy Award ‘Specialism Chemicals’ and specifically referred to BlueChem as a particular asset. The jury report said: ‘Thanks to the strong partnership between the academic world, the government and the business world, a unique ecosystem in sustainable chemistry has been created in Antwerp.’

Over the past year, BlueChem has welcomed SGS Belgium as its sixth strategic partner, following BNP Paribas Fortis, Deloitte, Deloitte Legal, Port of Antwerp and SAS Institute, in order to support start-ups with advice with respect to the environment, health and safety. The incubator also concluded a cooperative accord with essenscia’s Innovation Circle, whereby young entrepreneurs can be supervised by an experienced mentor. Flemish Minister of Economy and Innovation Hilde Crevits announced EUR 500,000 of operational support to offer the start-ups in BlueChem the perfect framework for increasing their chances of success, while the city of Antwerp, through the BlueChem Kickstart Fund, gives start-ups with BlueChem up to 700 euro/m² of financial support for setting up their labs.

BlueChem is an initiative of essenscia, the sector federation for chemistry and life sciences, the ‘Provinciale Ontwikkelingsmaatschappij’ (POM) Antwerpen, the city of Antwerp, research organisation VITO, and Catalisti, the spearhead cluster for innovation in the chemical and plastics industry. From its base at BlueChem, Catalisti also coordinates the Moonshot programme for climate innovation, whereby the Flemish Government will invest EUR 400 million over the coming 20 years in scientific research into renewable technologies for low-CO2 and carbon circular industries. This concerns, among other things, the capture and reuse of CO2, the electrification of production processes, improved recycling techniques, hydrogen projects and the use of biomass such as wood or agricultural waste as raw materials.

Leentje Croes, manager of BlueChem NV, says: “The first anniversary of BlueChem is a real celebration. The incubator is running at full speed and a few of the innovations in sustainable chemistry and the circular economy are on the cusp of an industrial breakthrough. In a very short period of time, BlueChem has expanded to become the central cog in pioneering chemistry technology in Flanders. This central position in the innovative chain is to be further developed in the coming years, by means of complementary collaborations with neighbouring pre-incubator BlueApp and the NextGen District in the port of Antwerp. Thanks to these partnerships, start-ups can gradually expand; testing ideas in BlueApp, making professional breakthroughs thanks to specialised accommodation and support from BlueChem, and carrying out industrial scale-ups in a demo factory or pilot installation in the port.”