As its acting head said in words and with PowerPoint slides, as one of the Swedish government’s 43 Strategic Research Environments, B4E was “fulfilling its promises”. However, through its annual self evaluation—issued to Swedish authorities and in part to the government, and which is performed against a set of 100 question—it has become apparent that researchers are expected, to a much greater degree than a few years ago, to become business entrepreneurs. This year and last, the Strategic Research Environments were asked to state the number of start-ups created, as well as provide proof that new products had sprung directly out of advice or research and development by their scientists.
“So it is up to you to remember to report all you meetings with municipality people and industry so that we can show the potential we have”, as an advisor and instigator of the bioeconomy, the B4E programme manager launched at some 40 researchers gathered 15-16 May to discuss collaborations and share their latest progress.
Vast number of industry collaborations
The “promises” or goals referred to were set out in a 2009 application to Swedish authorities. The bet was to draw together the considerable expertise on hand across three northern Swedish universities specialised in forestry and bioenergy research, marry this with the know-how available in research institutes such as Innventia, the Energy Technology Centre at Piteå or the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, and start delivering methods and tools for conducting efficient and sustainable biorefinery based on woody raw materials and organic waste, in collaboration with industry.
Indeed forestry industry, pulp and paper makers, energy utilities or biotechnology companies, as well as a range of small or medium-sized firms in the biorefinery sector are part of the B4E industrial network, with more than 20 businesses having signed letters in support of the research environment. They are a diverse bunch, including industrial giants such as Aditya Birla, owner of the Domsjö Fabriker biorefinery operations, as well as SMEs performing technology support services.
As presentations from the Bio4Energy platform leaders at the 15-16 May meeting showed, the B4E researchers are doing just that. There are a vast number of active collaborations with industry, academia and in research institutes from Alnarp in the south of the country, to Luleå in the north. All B4E research platforms are involved international cooperation, be this in the form of EU projects, bilateral ties, participation in the committees of the International Energy Agency or the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
Several, if not all, of the B4E research platforms are part of tight-knit groupings involving industrial partners and middle-men constellations that not only help running the intellectual property process, but also control it to the extent that it assigns certain commercial companies as a first-stop shop for individual researchers or groups of researchers to turn to when wanting to develop an idea or innovation.
Moreover B4E is a central player in Swedish industry-wide initiatives such as the “f3” Swedish Knowledge Centre for Renewable Transportation Fuels, the Forest Chemistry Project and the Green Chemistry cluster. It has strategic cooperation partners in the Processum Biorefinery Initiative and the Solander Science Park, with whom B4E has staged events and maintains close contacts.
Innovation, yes, but science is No. 1
So innovation, yes, but could you really ask of a research environment geared to a large extent at basic research to put a considerable part of its time into creating businesses or 'selling' products?
They, in this case, are Swedish authorities such as the Energy Agency, the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems, the Swedish Research Council Formas, the Swedish Research Council and, last but not least, the Swedish government and policy makers in a wider sense.
But entrepreneurship should be encouraged
Without there being 100 per cent proof that the energy requirement of the torrefaction process justifies large scale industrial use, Nordin has pressed ahead and been instrumental in setting up state-of-the-art pilot facilities for testing the qualities of a range of raw materials and thus their suitability to for making the desirable “green” coal—the solid briquettes or pellets that the pilot facilities turn out. The pilot, financed by industrial and academic partners, is running 24 hours, five days a week since March and this right next to the university campus. As a next step, the researchers hope to set up a demonstration plant, at a 20-minute drive from Umeå at Holmsund. Apart from perfecting the torrefaction technology, Nordin’s team hopes to use the facilities to educate students in Energy Technology enrolled in secondary training at UmU.
As “Bio4Energy we have to serve as a bridge [across] the gap to commercialisation, help industry. We should create the conditions enabling the [researchers who have the capacity] to provide a technology push”, Nordin told the audience of B4E researchers.
Clearly, there are all kinds in B4E. For sure, the research environment is abuzz with R&D activity and, while it has limited communications support, it manages to deliver meetings, conferences, a dynamic website and ad-hoc reports.
What B4E said it would do and did
Concluding a “Bio4Energy Collaborations” session 16 May, Marklund, the programme manager, before closing the meeting checked a few boxes to signal mission accomplished. Most importantly, the B4E research environment had committed to and was delivering on the following undertakings, he said:
- Setting up and consolidation a multi-campus research environment in the field of bioenergy and biorefinery research. This draws together UmU, LTU and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences;
- Providing quality education for graduate students. A great many of the B4E researchers are also in teaching, sharing their specialist knowledge as well as that of the integrated biorefinery value chain and considerable industrial network, gained to a great extent by the membership in B4E;
- Collaboration in teaching at the advanced levels for PhD students. This is very much what the B4E Graduate School on the “innovative use of biomass” is about: Filling a void in the higher education system, training tomorrow’s biorefinery professionals who are likely to need a high level of skill and capacity for entrepreneurship and innovativeness. It hosted its first course, Pilot Biorefinery Research, at Umeå 14-16 May and, by doing so;
- Filling a void not only in secondary education, but also in research in the areas of biorefinery and bioenergy, including on feedstock research intended to adapt trees to the needs of society and industry. For instance, in a future of competing claims for land use, a greater number of trees will have to reach maturity faster and be adapted to suit specific purposes.