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The Right Chemistry

Partnerships: The key to getting green chemistry tech to market?

How companies such as Levi's, Apple and Dow are engaging in the pursuit of new materials and industrial ingredients.

Bringing greener chemicals, materials and process technologies to market and scale is not for the meek.

The complexity of the chemical supply chain requires development and commercialization partnerships for new technologies to become optimized, scaled and pulled into products and onto store shelves. This is especially true for chemistry startups that lack production facilities and established supply chain relationships built over time.

For the last 12 years, the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3) — a cross-sector, business-to-business network of over 100 leading companies and other organizations — has been bringing together a diverse group of companies across sectors and supply chains to collaborate on projects to accelerate green chemistry innovation.

Especially in recent years, we have noticed an exciting trend. Many new, innovative green and bio-based chemistry startups, led by energetic, highly trained and mission-driven entrepreneurs, are developing new chemical ingredients, materials and technologies.

These breakthroughs enable improved performance, fill critical technology gaps and replace problematic incumbent technologies such as perfluorinated water and stain repellants and brominated flame retardants. These startups are increasingly critical engines of innovation for green chemistry solutions, particularly as some larger chemical companies downsize their R&D.

For early stage technologies, scaling can be a substantial barrier.

To support the growth of these startups, in 2016 the GC3 launched the GC3 Green & Bio-based Chemistry Startup Network to leverage our broad membership and create an "innovation ecosystem" that connects startups with established chemical suppliers, brands, retailers and investors who can serve as strategic development and commercialization partners.

For large companies, the startups bring to the table the opportunity to expand into new, strategic technology areas and can bring in a little startup culture and fresh ideas. For startups, partnering with a larger company can provide market recognition, technology and application improvements, plus access to broader market distribution and scale.

To explore challenges faced in partnering on both sides of the table and factors that can increase the chances of success, in February the GC3 organized a one-day workshop, "Leveraging Partnerships to Accelerate Green & Bio-based Chemistry Innovation" (PDF), hosted by Levi Strauss & Co at their Global Headquarters in San Francisco.

The workshop brought together 26 startup companies developing green and bio-based technologies pursuing technologies such as renewable specialty chemicals, high-performance recyclable plastics and safer methods for bleaching fabrics. In addition, 20 more established companies participated, from chemical and material suppliers such as 3M, Covestro and Dow to brands and retailers such as Apple, Method, Patagonia and Target. Venture capital firms such as First Green Partners and Safer Made also attended.

The power of early partnerships

During the workshop, we heard from startups about the importance of getting an established strategic partner on board early to build credibility and demonstrate the value of their technology to the broader market.  

Stacy Flynn, CEO and co-founder of Evrnu, a startup textile technology company that creates recycled fiber from post-consumer garment waste, spoke about Evrnu's partnership with Levi Strauss & Co. to make a pair of the iconic 511 jeans.

"Getting Levi’s on board early was key to demonstrating belief in our technology," said Flynn.

While their partnership is still in an early stage, it has generated a lot of excitement about the possibilities of this new technology, which was made clear by the enthusiasm in the room when Flynn held up a pair of Levi’s jeans made with Evrnu’s fiber.

Essential elements of successful partnerships

Many elements contribute to a successful partnership and they all depend on the technology and specific parties involved. However, from discussions throughout the day several core themes emerged:

  • Strategic alignment and shared vision between both companies. It goes without saying that strategic contributions from both parties — each bringing something to the table that they couldn’t do alone — is essential, but equally important is a shared vision on the applications and growth of the technology, which helps to ensure both parties are aligned as the collaboration progresses. For startups, doing the legwork to understand the needs of a potential partner, the specific value their technology brings and what problems they can help solve before reaching out is a critical factor for success.
  • An empowered, internal champion within the larger company who personally believes in the technology and whose business unit can benefit directly from its incorporation. "You need to have someone in the larger company who is personally committed to making the partnership successful. If you don’t have this, walk away," counseled Steve Hahn, a research fellow in the corporate ventures group at Dow Chemical. Although it can be challenging to know who to reach out to in a company, in general more early-stage startups who don’t have the immediate capacity to scale would do better to engage with a corporate R&D group for a joint development project, while startups with more developed technologies could be better suited to work with product development groups, which typically have shorter timelines to get to market.
  • Patience and flexibility. Some technologies may be considered a "drop-in" replacement, but incorporating them into an existing formulation is not trivial. Dale McIntyre, vice president of innovation and new product development for Behr Process Corporation, stressed that it is important for startups to be patient with the many iterations of formulations that are necessary, a process which sometimes can take years: "You all have amazing products, but they may not be amazing in the way we need them to be, so being open to working with us to modify properties is really important."  

    Driving market pull for green innovation

    Brands and retailers at the end of the value chain have a unique opportunity to provide the market pull needed to get green technologies to scale faster. By communicating to their suppliers and manufacturing partners further up the value chain that they are actively seeking greener ingredients and technologies, they can have a big impact.

    For early stage technologies, scaling can be a substantial barrier. However, many larger companies in the room said that if they believe a technology is truly transformative, they would much rather encourage other companies, even competitors, to adopt the new technology to achieve success and scale than maintain exclusivity.

    If it’s good for the world, we should share it.

    "As companies, we have a huge opportunity to drive meaningful, systemic change by sharing innovations and programs with the industry," said Una Murphy, senior designer, product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co. "By bringing others along, we can achieve a much greater impact than we would by keeping information within our four walls."

    Kaj Johnson, senior director, product development from People Against Dirty (aka Method Home and Ecover), echoed that sentiment: "If it’s good for the world, we should share it. We are a relatively small player and getting scale for new ingredients helps us. Why would I want exclusivity?"

    The GC3 is expanding the network to include more startups and is creating new opportunities for networking and collaborative projects designed to get good technologies to market. Next up is the Green & Bio-Based Chemistry Technology Showcase & Networking Event, hosted by Steelcase on April 24, where big brands and retailers will do reverse pitches, presenting their strategic technology needs to the startups, and 10 invited startups will present on their innovative green technologies. 

    For more information on the GC3 Startup Network, contact the GC3.

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