Exclusive Interview on Achema 2022 How Dechema is Preparing for the Future
Daring to do something new, but preserve the tried and tested values. That is the motto of Dechema Managing Director Dr Andreas Förster. In recent years, the professional society has become more practical and application-oriented. And there are even more ideas. Förster reveals what these are in the PROCESS interview.
Mr Förster, you took over as Managing Director of Dechema in the middle of the first year of coronavirus. What did you find, and how did you get through this time?
Dr Andreas Förster: I found a great organization, a lot of creativity, a lot of knowledge and excellent staff. However, I took over the management from Dr Wagemann in a very difficult situation because of the pandemic. We had to cope with the cancellation of events and switch to virtual events. The first and then the second Achema postponements also fell into this period. Of course, this is extremely difficult for an organization that has taken up the cause of industry and science in dialogue. Meetings are cancelled, exchanges are missing. But we quickly adapted our structures, became more efficient, and managed to maintain this dialogue despite the pandemic. We have managed to adapt to these challenges and will continue to work on them. Our committees and projects are working, and Achema is all set to take place in August.
What do these structural adjustments look like?
Förster: We have structured our internal organization into two large areas: Science and Industry, headed by Dr Kathrin Rübberdt, and the Service Division, headed by Dirk Rühl. Here we bundle our content-related activities into thematically oriented departments. This makes us more transparent for members and the community. Through networking, we can react very quickly and map internally what is happening scientifically at the moment. Here we also want to develop business areas such as databases, commissioned studies and consulting services. We will continue to drive this forward.
And where have you become more efficient?
Förster: Above all, in what lies at the core of Dechema: committee work, events, and the now very large project business. In terms of events, we have become more efficient in that we have learned to organize virtual events very well. We count ourselves among those who can and do organize them excellently. We have gone through an extremely fast learning curve here and I have great respect for the staff who have mastered this. The committee work has also gone virtual. We have learned to organize meetings with a mix of physical and virtual, not only to keep the participants and the professionals engaged but also to enable optimal output.
What do you stand for as Managing Director? For continuity or disruption?
Förster: I learned how Dechema works during my 12 years as head of the Research Promotion and Conferences Department. So I certainly stand more for continuity and further development. But of course I have ideas and visions on how I would like to develop Dechema further. The survivability of the organization must also be ensured, and this includes analyzing our processes and seeing where we can do things better or differently. For me, however, it is also important to develop new business areas. The goal is to make additional offers on the one hand, but to maintain the non-profit operation as a registered association on the other. We want to maintain the core of Dechema: the network and the transfer between science and industrial practice. In my view, this exchange, in both directions, is Dechema’s unique selling point, and we will continue to place even more emphasis on this in the future.
Which business areas are you thinking of specifically?
Förster: We have gained a lot of experience and built up know-how in the preparation of market analyses and market observations. And we have produced studies in projects and for associations and organizations. This includes, for example, the Energy Study 2050 for the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI), which made a lot of waves. We have also worked on the topic of sustainability analysis of processes and dealt with the socio-economic aspects of processes. We have bundled this expertise in Dechema Analysis + Consulting and now offer it on the open market. Ultimately, the aim is to bundle our commercial activities and make them more visible and, last but not least, to generate further sources of income in addition to Achema.
Could these commercial activities also lead to spin-offs?
Förster: That is definitely an option that we are still discussing internally. Ultimately, this is a strategic decision for the board.
How have the focal points of Dechema changed since you joined 12 years ago?
Förster: A milestone was the definition of our seven focus topics: chemistry, bioeconomy, pharmaceuticals, medical technology, energy, climate and water management. This allows us to demonstrate practical relevance and address industry sectors much better than when I started. But we have also taken up many other topics. These include power-to-X and the transformation of the chemical industry and the entire process industries towards renewable energy sources — a very dominant topic at the moment. The “biologization” of processes also plays an important role. A new addition, to take an example from biotechnology, is single-use processing, where we have prepared a position paper.
For me, the circular economy — the main topic of this year’s Tutzing Symposium — has become extremely important. Here we developed recommendations for action for the process industries.
And now we are currently working on the topics of data management and artificial intelligence. I myself am leading the NFDI4Cat project, a large-scale interdisciplinary research initiative within the framework of the National Research Data Infrastructure association
(NFDI in German). This is about research data management, about structuring data that was previously unstructured and making it evaluable. There is a huge amount of data from the process industry, from material synthesis and many other areas. Making this data accessible is a topic that we must and will deal with much more in the future.
Let’s take a look at the upcoming major event in August. The tail end of the pandemic, the Ukraine war — what do you expect from Achema in these challenging times?
Förster: Of course, the uncertainty due to the Ukraine war is great, especially in the chemical industry. Markets are falling away, the discussion about gas imports, supply interruptions, threats of boycotts, supply bottlenecks … the list goes on. We will see a smaller international trade fair this year. Nevertheless, this Achema will be very important, and Achema 2024 too. The topic of internationalization will not be lost — I don’t believe in the return of regionality. But there will be shifts, and that is why such a large leading trade fair, where partners from all over the world meet, is all the more important. And allow me to add one more thing: The transformation of the chemical industry away from fossil raw materials is becoming even more important because of the Ukraine war. We are now experiencing a setback because we have to fall back on coal and oil due to the lack of gas. But in the medium term there will be a push for renewable energy and for transformation. And there, of course, is an important role for the necessary processes, the process industry as a whole, and hence for Achema.
The congress is also not quite as academically oriented as in previous years — a change that better suits what happens at Achema.
This year you are bringing the congress back from the congress centre into the halls — why?
Förster: The spatial separation between the exhibition grounds and the congress center prevented interaction between visiting the fair and visiting the congress — you couldn’t just visit the exhibition for a quarter of an hour between lectures. This is now possible, and it chimes with the wishes of the participants. The congress is also not quite as academically oriented as in previous years — a change that better suits what happens at Achema. Nevertheless, it is and remains the stage for science and the major trends.
Energy transition, defossilisation, hydrogen — many of the topics you deal with at Dechema are on the political agenda. How do you see Dechema’s opportunities to influence politics and society?
Förster: We are not a lobbying association like the VCI. We express ourselves on research policy but not on politics. When we give our opinion, it is always considered, and balanced between research and industry — that is what we stand for. In recent years, Dechema has gained a great reputation for developing trend topics and classifying them, which is why we are listened to in politics and society. We want it to stay that way in the future.
Mr Förster, many thanks for the interview.