The port of Antwerp and the surrounding region is home to a world-class chemistry cluster. Naturally this ecosystem also encompasses knowledge institutions that supply technology and innovations, as well as businesses that valorise and bring new knowledge onto the market. Antwerp’s new BlueChem ‘incubator’ is designed to support researchers and companies as much as possible in the further development and deployment of sustainable chemistry. They can also rely on VITO’s expertise.

The new incubator is set to open its doors in spring 2020 in the Blue Gate Antwerp business park, formerly Petroleum-Zuid, situated alongside the river Scheldt to the south of Antwerp city centre. Its aim is to provide accommodation for start-ups and growth companies and to support these businesses with specific services and specialist, tailored advice. One of the BlueChem partners is VITO, which is able to draw on its wide-ranging expertise in sustainable chemistry. ‘BlueChem is becoming a real ecosystem for sustainable chemistry’, Bruno Reyntjens of VITO tells us. ‘Obviously we want to be part of this.’ VITO has already reserved an office in the 3,400 m² building due for completion in spring 2020.

The plans for BlueChem have been in the pipeline for some time now. A lot of thought has therefore gone into the ambitious project, including a feasibility study in 2012. ‘The study identified a clear need in Flanders for somewhere that start-ups and growth companies can receive targeted support in sustainable chemistry’, says Frank Beckx, Managing Director of essenscia Flanders, the regional division of the Belgian Federation for the Chemistry and Life Sciences Industries, and Chairman of the Board of BlueChem. ‘The port of Antwerp traditionally ranks among the best in the world in the chemical industry. Our production capacity is huge, and we are a strong chemical region. But when it comes to research and valorising new knowledge in the form of innovative applications, we can and must do better.’ According to Beckx there is no shortage of top-level chemistry research in Flanders. However, the resulting knowledge is not being fully exploited. He mentions Flemish biotechnology as an example. ‘Many new biotech companies have emerged from incubators attached to universities and other research institutions. That’s what we want to achieve with BlueChem.’

BlueChem can accommodate around twenty companies, which have the option to rent office space, laboratories or other facilities. They will become part of an ecosystem that lives and breathes innovation and entrepreneurship, and where tailored advice and support is always available, in all areas from ICT to financial, and from legal to scientific and technical. This is where the strategic partners come in: companies such as BNP Paribas Fortis (financing of start-ups and scale-ups and financial expertise in sustainable business practices), Deloitte (strategic advice on business development), Laga (legal support) and Port of Antwerp (assistance with pilot projects and industrial scale-up).

The idea behind this rock-solid service provision is to make it easier for young businesses to carry out their chemistry-based activities. Beckx talks about ‘making life easier’ for companies. ‘By providing them with continuous support, we allow them to focus as much as possible on their core business: sustainable chemistry innovation.’

BlueChem’s priority is therefore innovation and entrepreneurship in sustainable chemistry. More specifically: the valorisation of waste and residual streams, the optimisation of industrial processes (fewer raw materials and less energy) and the development of renewable chemicals (from raw materials other than oil, such as CO2) and sustainable products. This ties in well with the activities of VITO, which has been carrying out research in these areas for many years. ‘We are currently seeing the emergence of many sustainable chemistry-based start-ups and SMEs’, says Reyntjens. ‘These companies need infrastructure and an ecosystem.’

BlueChem’s ‘chemistry campus’ will include three fully finished laboratories, as well as twelve laboratories each featuring main services and basic equipment that tenants themselves can set up according to their own requirements. Each tenant will also receive an individual budget in the form of a start-up grant from the BlueChem Kickstart Fund. The project is being supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Flemish government and the city of Antwerp. The incubator will also house regular private offices as well as the offices of VITO and Catalisti, the spearhead cluster for the chemical and plastics industries in Flanders. Finally, the complex will also offer a number of meeting rooms.

The aim is not for companies to set up business in BlueChem on a permanent basis. According to Reyntjens: ‘Ideally, successful businesses will start to scale up and relocate elsewhere, for instance to another Blue Gate business park. Or perhaps to one of Flanders’ many living lab projects.’

Daily management of the incubator will be done by Leentje Croes, who is joining the project from Catalisti. ‘With BlueChem we want to offer more than just an office or lab’, says Croes. ‘It is far too often the case that promising young businesses struggle to valorise their research, or are even forced to close their doors due to a lack of funding. Thanks to the cooperation with our partners, BlueChem can also help them with this. What's more, Catalisti provides businesses with access to an even larger network that enables companies to find one another and exchange knowledge.’