Making Innovation Pay in a Sustainable Way

Article by Graeme Cruickshank

CPI is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Graeme Cruickshank looks at how the technology innovation centre has transformed the UK’s R&D sector and how it can continue to remain relevant to the just transition

Graeme Cruickshank

WHAT’S remarkable about the last 20 years in this industry is that I have had the pleasure, and some might say the curse, of being witness to the pace of change.

Looking back, I do remember talking about the imperatives around sustainability and climate change, but perhaps they were not the primary driver in decision-making as we wrestled with difficult commercial R&D decision-making.

Of course, as the climate question has become ever more obvious to us all and is now central to our public discourse, that needle has shifted and conversations on decisions to invest are very different today.

Governments and societies across the world are demanding action to protect the planet, and people are looking for reassurance that their families’ and loved one’s futures are going to be secure.

That’s a challenge that nobody can face alone. It cannot just fall on business to turn 180 degrees and come up trumps in terms of profitability, job creation, and anchoring themselves in local economies.

Neither is it purely the role of government or individuals to enforce or make more sustainable choices without appreciating that the cost burden is placed somewhere.

Everyday influences

Our industry has a unique position in our society. To most people sitting at home, the chemical and process industries don’t mean all that much. They might know someone who works in the industry, but I would hazard a guess that most have no knowledge at all.

Even people who have worked in the industry probably don’t associate the dishwasher tablet they use every day with a chemical process that has been shaped and moulded over decades, one designed to solve the most pressing of problems: who is going to do the washing up?

The industry forms such a vital component of our daily lives without us often noticing. The foundations of our modern world are built on it, and so if we can harness our potential, we can make the changes the world needs to reach net zero and combat climate change.

This is where CPI has played – and will continue to play – a vital role in taking bright ideas and helping to turn them into a commercial reality.

Formed in 2004, CPI was established with a very clear remit: to ensure that vital skills were retained in England’s North East following the breakup of the chemical giant ICI.

This was no easy task; ICI was massive, not just for the North East, but it also had an equally significant presence in other parts of the UK. At its peak, the company employed over 100,000 people, and was the second largest employer in the UK behind the NHS. A true powerhouse.

CPI headquarters in Wilton, Redcar

Obviously, CPI couldn’t operate at that scale. As a new entity, we had to build our numbers and our capabilities to create the truly unique social enterprise model that we have today.

Having achieved that, the next step was to provide industry with a resource that promoted R&D and brought businesses of all shapes and sizes to work with us, not just in the North East, but across the UK and internationally.

We have therefore built up our presence in Scotland with the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre and we’re taking a leading role in the development of other centres for innovation in the North West, too.

Just one example we believe will make a huge difference is a process known as continuous direct compression. This gives manufacturers the ability to scale up or slow down production of medicines and therapeutics based on demand. Not only does it save companies money, but it is also markedly more sustainable than traditional batch manufacturing.

CPI is also developing a new centre focused on the production of therapeutics known as oligonucleotides, or oligos.

These therapeutics show great promise in being able to solve some of our biggest health challenges including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, but are also extremely expensive to make, requiring huge amounts of chemical solvents and producing tens of thousands of litres of liquid waste.

Working with a range of partners from industry, government public sector agencies, and academia, the Oligonucleotide Manufacturing Innovation Centre of Excellence will explore solutions to the sustainability problems that threaten the mass production of oligos.

CPI’s Oligonucleotide Manufacturing Innovation Centre of Excellence in Scotland

Profitability and sustainability

One of the fundamental questions we’re trying to help the industry solve is the question of sustainability and of course retaining economic viability. Profitability is not a dirty word; we must ensure that the more sustainable products and processes are viable enough to be deployed at scale as that is when genuine sustainability impact is achieved.

We must work together with academics, investors, government, and a whole host of stakeholders to futureproof our industry.

How can we make sure there are no more big economic or societal shocks? How can we be prepared and more able to look beyond what’s possible now and plot a course for what the industry will need in the future?

We do that by bonding the right people with one another. The UK has long had a strong reputation for having the best and brightest ideas; however, ideas alone won’t change the world unless we reduce them to practice and deliver them on an industrial scale.

A perfect example of that is a unique carbon capture and utilisation project CPI became involved in recently.

Flue2Chem involves several partners across industries and academia. It aims to take the carbon produced by a papermill in Cumbria and turn it into useful raw materials that can then be used to make cleaning products.

It’s a novel idea, because we know that many industries are going to continue to need a lot of energy to keep their businesses running, and they’re going to need it for quite some time. So, instead of saying to those companies, “you have to change now”, why not adapt our thought process to ensure they can remain viable using the energy they need but now also value the carbon they produce?

Similarly, we worked closely with several companies including Stuff4Life and Arco to demonstrate innovative recycling solutions to help move the workwear and clothing industry towards a circular economy.

The Stuff4Life chemical recycling process takes used workwear and recycles it back to starting materials from which new garments can be made. Our project was critical for Arco’s decision to invest in Stuff4Life and bring the process closer to commercialisation in Teesside.

These types of solutions are going to quickly become the building blocks for the future of our economy here in the UK and reapplied for global application.

And, we have established national centres of excellence in novel food production, medicines manufacturing, and biologics to name but a few.

Research work at CPI’s Novel Food Innovation Centre

The next 20 years

CPI have had a constancy of purpose over the last 20 years, and that consistent approach to enabling R&D and our attempts to leverage private investment in new and exciting technologies that will create real impact, has borne some fruit.

However, if we are going to be successful over the next 20 years we will need to turn the rocket boosters on and aim higher than we have before.

We need to accelerate these technologies to scale so that they become part of our everyday lives and not just ideas or theories that we can demonstrate in a lab.

In order to do that, what we need to establish is an industrial strategy for innovation in the UK, giving us a clear direction of travel. Within that strategy we also need to identify where things can be improved, and how we’re going to address the problems we have in turning great ideas into commercial reality.

We need a closer relationship with academia so we can influence the theories and research behind the science and technology. So many fantastic ideas fall away because they’re just not applicable to the real world. If we had the ability to look at those ideas earlier and provide guidance so that they could be translated into a market-changing product, the UK would be in vastly different position to the one we’re in now.

That means organisations like CPI – which over the last 20 years have played a pivotal role – are going to play an even bigger part in how we solve the problems industry is facing.

We all know what those problems are, and together we can plot a course for a brighter future.

The UK, and the world, needs the chemical and process industries, and it’s time we showed everyone that.

Article by Graeme Cruickshank

Chief technology and innovation officer, CPI National Formulation Centre

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