Breeding unicorns on innovation and sustainability

Times have changed. China is no longer the workbench of the world, but is evolving into an innovation hub that has in some areas already surpassed the industrialized countries of the Western world. Germany’s carmakers are looking with a mixture of awe and uneasiness on the development of e-mobility in China, the emerging AI applications are fervently discussed in Europe (not least due to the differing perception on privacy in China and Europe), and increasingly, Western companies open R&D centers in China both to tap into local know-how and talent and to cater better to the specific needs of Chinese markets and consumers.

But not all innovation is taking place in the well-known top-dog companies. Another trend is often overlooked from an outside perspective: China has a thriving and multi-facetious startup scene that is bringing innovation into markets much faster than the somewhat sedate players of the “old economy”. According to a study sponsored by Covestro, in 2017, over 100 Chinese start-ups were listed in stock markets around the world, and more than 270 companies were in the list of Chinese ‘unicorns’, meaning companies younger than ten years and valued with around one billion Euro or more. Europe and especially Germany, where the lack of startups especially in the industrial and chemical sectors are a matter of concern and even grief, look on with a certain degree of envy on the entrepreneurial spirit expressed by young Chinese founders. To be sure, this trend is not totally due to a greater readiness to assume risk and a favorable societal perception of entrepreneurship. Chinese politics also play an active role: For more than 30 years, the Ministry of Science and Technology has fostered the emergence of startups with the “Torch Program”, establishing more than 150 “high tech zones”, more than 4,000 business incubators and dedicated industrial parts. These areas are hot-spots for investment in innovative companies and startups. According to a report by “Germany trade and invest”, about 1,000 new companies are registered in the high tech zones – per day. They profit from tax reductions and applications-oriented R&D funding. In addition to readily available venture capital from large companies and private investors – stimulated among others by tax reductions for funds investing in early stage companies - a state fund supports technology-oriented startups.

China has thus become a forerunner in a field that seems crucial not only for innovation as such, but to promote new sustainable technologies on a global scale. And global collaboration is on the mind of many who feel that an industrial transformation is needed. The International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) is an initiative focused on this. It is a new, independent institution funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment and dedicated to shaping the transformation towards sustainability in the chemical sector and all application fields using chemicals. “We promote Sustainable Chemistry as a new holistic approach and foster innovation assessing the whole life cycle of products and advancing new sustainable business models and services”, explains Dr. Alexis Bazzanella, Co-Director of the ISC3 Innovation Hub. And he explains why ISC3 particularly looks beyond the borders of Europe and the industrialized Western countries – the reason is the shift of chemicals production and consumption towards the Global East and South: “Sustainable chemistry innovation can have a particularly high leverage effect to change existing unsustainable practices in those regions to the better. This does not necessarily require high-tech solutions. Remarkable impact is achievable by relatively minor means, especially in developing countries: avoidance of waste or waste treatment, water purification, intelligent use of fertilizers, substitution of hazardous components etc.” ISC3 is not aiming only at process innovations, but also at new products and services, covering the entire lifecycle of chemicals used in virtually all downstream sectors and applications affected by the use of chemicals, including building and construction, transport, agriculture, food and water supply, healthcare and many more. With its dedicated “Innovation Hub”, the ISC3 puts a special focus on entrepreneurship. Alexis Bazzanella explains the vision behind this: “At the heart of our innovation activities lies the ISC3 Global Start-up Service with its goal to help entrepreneurs in becoming Sustainable Chemistry Changemakers. The main objective of the Service is to contribute to the global breakthrough of sustainable chemistry by supporting innovators along the entire innovation chain.” And he sees China as one of the most important regions in this context, not only due to its fast growth and tremendous economic development. “There is a growing start-up and innovation ecosystem in China, and we want to raise awareness for the huge opportunities for sustainable chemistry among these innovators.” A special treat for Chinese startups might be the launch of the ISC3 Innovation Challenge that will take place at AchemAsia. With the first edition focusing on  innovations in the field of Sustainable Building and Living, finalists will get access to the global ISC3 start-up support programme and the winner of the challenge will additionally be awarded with an innovation price of 25000 €. 

Visitors of AchemAsia 2019 have the chance to see the latest innovative technologies for sustainable chemical production, but also to engage with representatives of ISC3 and other international stakeholders. All information at

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