Brecht Vanlerberghe (46) joined the Sustainable Chemistry unit at VITO last summer. He uses his experience in agri-food and biobased industry to help turn highly process-driven sectors, such as chemicals, more sustainable, aiming to bridge the gap that often separates originality and profitability. 'We have to try to be both relevant and original.'

You started your career at the Belgian company Aveve before moving to FrieslandCampina, then to French company Tereos, and then the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant in Ghent, before joining VITO in May 2019. What do you see as the common thread in your career?

'I've worked in a range of industrial sectors, from the dairy and grain industries to the biobased sector. All these companies were collaborations driven by raw materials and I learned a lot about supply & value chains and, above all, how companies think. I always worked with product and process innovations, aiming to match the supply of raw materials with the current and, most importantly, future market demand. Over the years, my role systematically shifted from technical expert to manager. In Ghent, for example, I was responsible for R&D projects that were financed externally, and I had plenty of contact with VITO there. Now I'm on the other side and I'm convinced I can achieve more from my position within VITO. Here at VITO, one of the things I'm trying to do is ensure that the basic strategic research is directed at an economic purpose; our research must be picked up and valorised by Flemish industry.'

How do you balance process improvement with sustainability, which is an important aspect of the unit where you work?

'One way of making chemistry more sustainable and low-carbon is to reduce energy consumption for industrial processes and electrify them wherever possible. We can achieve the former through intensifying processes or making them milder, and the latter by powering the chemical processes using renewable resources.

We also need to move towards alternative raw materials. That could be recycled plastics or conventional biomass, or why not captured CO2, which is something whose use is now being heavily encouraged in Flanders as part of the Moonshot projects. VITO has been working on that for years now; for example, with its research into lignin from waste streams. At the end of the day, the combination of circular and biobased will have to replace the use of "virgin" fossil fuels wherever possible.'

You come from industry, which usually prioritises 'economic purpose'. How do you balance profit and return with research that is bold and risky?

'That's a gap that I've noticed at VITO as well: on the one hand, our assignment is to be original and creative with our research, which can result in patents and articles published in specialist journals – and that's nice. On the other hand, we also have to and want to be relevant for industry. Industry prefers to avoid risks and prioritises earning money, but most businesses have also grasped that consumers are finding sustainability increasingly important. I believe that ongoing process improvement goes hand in hand with sustainability, but disruptive innovation is also needed.

So, we have to be part visionary and continue to focus on improving sustainability, whilst also maintaining a focus on economic feasibility, and ensuring that we are making the right choices. If we can achieve that and reach a mature level of technology with corresponding value chains, then this will be picked up on by industry.'