Start-Up Companies at Achema Where the Wild Ideas Are: Chemical Start-Up Companies at Achema

From Dominik Stephan

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Start-Up Companies at Achema — Achema not only wants to be the world’s leading trade fair for the chemical industry, but also to provide a forum for start-ups. Because despite the unbroken innovative power of the industry, start-ups in the chemical industry have a hard time. Is there a lack of recognition, capital or simply the opportunities? Achema wants to change all that.

Start-up adventure: founders want to discover the industry of tomorrow.
Start-up adventure: founders want to discover the industry of tomorrow.
(Source: Sergey Nivens - stock.adobe.com; thenounproject.com )

If you think of the chemical industry, massive integrated sites and chemical parks come to mind. Huge columns, crackers and reactors, miles of pipelines and the energy requirements of a small town included. We certainly don’t think of the proverbial garage. No wonder most chemical companies have a long history: Quite a few of Germany’s industry giants date back to beginnings in the 19th century — in an industry that thrives on perpetual product and process innovation.

It’s a shame, really, because the industry has long been in a state of startup fever: Young scientists and inventors at universities and institutes are launching innovations and devleopments that could change the face of the industry: Instead of apps and platform technologies, it’s not uncommon for the young guns to come up with new molecules and technologies with which they hope to get a piece of the big chemical pie. Figures from the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI) show that more than half of the chemical start-ups rely on classic synthesis and reaction processes. Around a third use technology platforms, while another third focus on biochemical processes. Digital technologies, the playing field in which startups are classically located, employ only about a third. Yet it is excactly this mix of innovation, entrepreneurship and agility that enables start-ups to claim a niche in the value chain, industry insiders believe.

No wonder that Achema doesn’t want to be left behind: in 2022, the world’s leading chemicals trade fair not only wants to offer a showcase for equipment suppliers and global companies, but also provide a platform for the little ones. In addition to the Achema Start-Up Award, it is the Start-Up Area in Hall 6.2 in particular aims to become a marketplace of opportunities. The promise: to bring together pioneers and investors, experts and decision-makers with the aim of building trust and laying the foundations for projects and future business opportunities. In fact, there is still some catching up to do, explains the VCI: while a total of € 54.5 million was invested in young chemical companies in Europe in the pre-crisis year of 2018, German companies accounted for only € 2.4 million of that, the lowest figure since 2007.

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Achema Founders' Prize
Chemical Start-Up Companies are Reaching for the Stars

Without the chemical-pharmaceutical industry, nothing would work: Whether it's lightweight materials for highly stressed components or vaccines for billions, an innovation in the process industry often enables completely new products and value-added ctts in other industries. And yet the number of new companies founded remains comparatively low. Dechema does not want to believe that this is only due to a lack of apps and foosball tables, and is starting a competition among founders together with the Business Angels FrankfurtRheinMain, Clariant and the High-Tech Gründerfonds. And the competition enters its hottest phase at Achema: After two preliminary rounds, ten finalists will now compete in a pitch session in Frankfurt for recognition and three times 10,000 euros in prize money.

Competing for the founder's crown in Frankfurt:

  • Sustainability startup Carbon Minds with a digital model of the global chemical industry to create transparency on the environmental impact of global supply chains.
  • Cenios, working to develop next-generation POCT (point-of-care testing) kits for absolute quantification of analytes.
  • Esy-Labs' electrosynthesis specialists, combining high-throughput screening and AI.
  • Lumatix Biotech with an alternative to protein chromatography.
  • Artificial intelligence-based control systems for industrial processes from Phaidra, which allow experts to determine which performance and operational parameters should be optimized.
  • Pipepredict with a predictive maintenance tool to reduce energy and media losses in pipe networks.
  • Pramo Molecular, presenting a technology to efficiently and tolerably deliver therapeutic oligonucleotides such as siRNAs to target cells
  • Process-robust sensor technology for real-time analytics in chemical production facilities is available from Pro-Aspect X.
  • Prosion is developing a platform of highly innovative chemical building blocks that, for the first time, enable the targeting of a number of disease-relevant target proteins that were previously considered undruggable.
  • Software solutions for the modular process industry from Semodia, which transfer the principle of Plug&Play of the printer driver in IT to Plug&Produce medium Module Type Package to the modular process industry.

Young Guns and Old Hands: The Chemical Industry Up-Close

2.4 million is not much for the continent’s largest economy — and looks modest compared to the multi-billion revenues of global corporations. At least in the process industry with its megaplants and integrated sites, the anticipated disruption is still a thing of the future. But perhaps the role of the “wild ones” is quite different: “The expertise of many chemical start-ups lies in offering specialty products that can be used in industrial production. Their competence consists in offering special products that are used in industrial production and specific services for established chemical companies,” explained Dr. Christian Rammer from the ZEW – Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim at the presentation of a corresponding study.

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So, rather a speedboat than an aircraft carrier — this picture should also appeal to Dr. Gerd Romanowski, managing director for science, technology and environment at the VCI. “The strength of chemical start-ups for our industry lies primarily in positioning themselves right between traditional chemistry and new areas of application, such as digital solutions or platform technologies,” says the association official.

They say that knowledge is power — so it is somewhat sobering that only a quarter of the chemical start-ups have registered one or more patents. Is this because young companies in particular often work as service providers for other industry players, as the VCI suspects? In fact, the business model of the outsourced development department or custom synthesis is daily bread for many start-ups and quite profitable business — but this has the disadvantage that investors mainly invest in companies with a large number of patent applications.

Achem to Become a Home for Ideas

This may be superficial — not least because it largely leaves out the service sector, another typical playing field for young companies. All the more important, then, that Achema brings together young founders and old hands.

Accordingly, Wednesday at the world’s leading trade fair for the chemical industry will be dedicated to start-ups: In addition to the coveted Achema Start-up Award (see box), the aspect of sustainability will not be neglected: The International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre ISC3 will bring exciting start-ups from all over Europe and beyond to the stage: for example, start-ups such as the Estonian Up Catalysts or the German-Colombian Natupla: Natural Plastic will bring new materials, processes and bioplastics, among many others, to a public pitch day under the banner of sustainability.

The local heroes from Hessen Trade and Invest will also be presenting start-ups from the chemical industry. And who knows? Maybe this will be the start of a whole new success story in chemistry.

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