|Steen Riisgaard is President and CEO of Novozymes A/S, Denmark, a position he has held since Novozymes was demerged from Novo Nordisk A/S in 2000. The core business of Novozymes is industrial enzymes, microorganisms, and biopharmaceutical ingredients. The company’s enzymes break down biomass into fermentable sugars that can be used to make everything from next-generation biofuels to plastics to acrylic acid. And in the context of sustainable energy, Novozymes is heavily invested in researching and advancing market-ready cellulosic biofuels.|
We spoke to Steen Riisgaard about bio-based innovation and his views on the European strategy to build a bioeconomy. He also sent his best wishes for an inspiring Bioeconomy Session in Berlin.
|How would you define the term bioeconomy? What are the main advantages of building a bio-economy – and are there disadvantages?|
It is a sustainable, low-carbon approach to energy and production processes in which renewable mate-rials can meet the growing food and product needs of an expanding global population at a time of scarce resources.
Our vision at Novozymes actually goes beyond the bioeconomy. We envisage and contribute to building up a bio-based society that moves away from oil, where biorefineries replace oil refineries, and where biological raw materials replace fossil fuels as the primary feedstock for materials, fuels, and energy. To do so, we take inspiration from nature, instead of exploiting scarce, unsustainable resources.
Beyond the obvious positive impact on our environment, the development of a bio-based society will provide a significant green stimulus to the global economy, create jobs and additional revenues, and foster innovation, as fundamental changes will be required in the energy, industrial, and agricultural sectors worldwide.
There are challenges that will need to be overcome on the way but I can’t think of any disadvantages.
|To what extent do you think the traditional oil-based technologies can be replaced by bio-based technologies? Where are the limits of the bioeconomy?|
I don’t see any limits. A fully bio-based economy may not happen in my own lifetime but I’m confident it will grow steadily, deliver on its promises, and may even exceed expectations. But we have to start somewhere. At Novozymes, we have identified and are working on a series of building blocks with which to begin:
- Transportation fuels made from agricultural and forestry residues, waste, and energy crops, which burn up to 90% cleaner than gasoline
- Detergents that clean thoroughly in cold water, thereby reducing energy consumption and water pollution
- Plastics and polymers that are based on renewable biomass – not petroleum
- Renewable chemicals that are less harsh to the environment
- Food crops that require less fertilizer and water, yet produce higher per-acre yields
- Animal feed that promotes greater nutrient absorption, and reduces harmful by-products in animal waste
|In your opinion, are there any differences in how chemical and bio-based industries implement innovation?|
We both try to innovate by involving the whole value chain, and we both have science-intensive types of innovations. There can be some differences linked to the size of the company rather than the industry: Larger companies tend to rely more on internal competencies for innovation than smaller companies, which do not necessarily have all competencies in house. Having said this, all large companies are aware that real innovation often crosses different fields of competencies, which is why they need to seek inspiration externally and involve the entire value chain. Cross-fertilization to harvest the synergies is key in both sectors.
It goes without saying that the output is different. Innovation in the bio-based sector is clearly tailored to addressing global challenges in food production, reduced fossil fuels, and climate change. However, the chemical industry is increasingly realizing the opportunities of the bio-based economy. The recent acquisition of Danisco by Dupont is one example of the commitment some chemical companies are making in their industrial biotechnology branches.
|Your company operates in many countries of the world. What are the strengths of the European bioindustries, what obstacles have still to be overcome, and what can we learn from other countries?|
Yes, Novozymes operates in different parts of the world; this is essential in today’s global economy. If you want to survive and create added value, you need to adapt to your customers‘ needs, which can vary from one region to another. For example, we recently started a partnership with the China-based agricultural processor Meihua Group to jointly develop an enzymatic process turning various agricultural residues into sugar, followed by fermentation to produce amino acids for food additives. China has a need for these food additives, which enhance flavor and act as nutritional supplements. We would not have been able to identify this need and potential collaboration from our Danish headquarters. Having a presence in China and elsewhere in the world helps cross-fertilization and enables us to respond faster to specific demands and challenges.
Europe is a global leader in industrial biotechnologies and it can stay in the lead by maintaining its focus. When you look at the biorefinery concept, using waste materials to produce energy, fiber, food, chemicals, etc., it’s clear that Europe has a very strong platform from which to grow. We have good universities, talented researchers, and a strong chemical industry. There are various obstacles though, with lack of awareness of the potential of biotechnology and being in competition with a well-established oil industry among the big challenges that need to be overcome.
Despite these obstacles, I’m confident that the bio-based society will be realized because it’s providing solutions to address our big societal challenges. What we want and what we’re working on is for this to happen sooner than later.
|Novo was founded in 1925 and was already very successful long before the term bioeconomy was invented. Do increasing political recognition and the European bioeconomy strategy have a positive impact on your work?|
Political recognition is important and must be accompanied by specific policies as well as adequate financing and incentives. Bringing innovative technologies to the market is today’s key challenge because they cannot be cost competitive with oil-based alternatives from day one. Preparing for an oil-independent future will require a significant transformation of our economies involving the oil, chemical, and agricultural sectors, and coordinated policies.
There are many examples in the past of EU or national policy that has enabled the development and deployment of new technologies. Building on renewable energy policies, the EU institutions and member states should give priority to establishing incentives and targets for chemicals and products based on renewable sources. These policies should send a strong signal to stimulate research and innovation, investments, and infrastructure buildup.
|Finally, a personal question. Protecting nature has long been very important to you, and you are chairman of WWF (World Wildlife Fund for Nature) Denmark. How has this responsibility toward the environment influenced your career?|
I have been a nature-lover since childhood. In the 1970s I became active in environmental causes and started to focus on pollution by industrial chemicals. When I joined what was then Novo as a researcher in 1979, I was working to replace those chemicals with biology-based ingredients, and have never stopped since! I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to combine successfully my personal aspirations and professional goals. In this respect, I’ve become a realistic environmentalist. I know what it takes to bring positive changes to our lives and make them more sustainable. I don’t ignore the fact that this is difficult and requires a lot of effort, collaboration, support, and partnerships, but Novozymes has proved this is possible, and I’m very proud of that.