The Northern provinces in The Netherlands are a hotbed for innovation in sustainable chemistry. ‘We have space, ample supplies of raw materials from agriculture and a plenty of green energy’, says Van Linschoten. Both established and new companies flourish in this ecosystem that is fuelled by major knowledge institutions like the University of Groningen and the Hanze University of Applied Sciences (Hanze UAS). Regional education centres like Noorderpoort provide skilled technical staff. These three institutions founded the facility, of which Hanze UAS is lead partner.
Equipment and infrastructre
‘Each year, hundreds of students from Hanze UAS start their own business’, says Van Linschoten. The University also spawns spin-off companies in sustainable chemistry or biotechnology. However, developing a good idea from the lab to a viable product takes quite a few steps. ZAP is the first stepping stone in this process.
‘We provide equipment and infrastructure, like high voltage power current and different gasses, which companies can use to go from millilitres or milligrams to litres and kilograms.’ ZAP is also useful as a place for companies to set up their own production equipment: Quite often, increased production requires new permits. Van Linschoten ‘We already have those in place, or we can get them fairly easily, thanks to a good cooperation with the municipal services.’
The focus of ZAP is on biobased products. ‘That is our mission: to contribute to a sustainable future.’ One of their first customer is BioBTX, which has developed a process to produce biomass-based aromatics (benzene, toluene and xylenes). Another company which uses the ZAP facility extracts polysaccharides from the chitin shells that remain after peeling North Sea shrimps.
ZAP’s effort to make the industry more sustainable and emission free provides excellent training for students. ‘They need to learn the necessary skills for green chemistry and biotechnology’, Van Linschoten emphasizes. For the three founding institutions of ZAP, this requires rewriting curricula and getting enough projects for the students to hone their skills on. ‘We try to help out the educators, like we help the entrepreneurs with their research.’
This way, the activities of ZAP are important to the green business ecosystem of Chemport Europe, the umbrella organisation which brings together sustainable research in the Northern provinces. Apart from companies and educators, the local and regional governments are an important part of this incubator for green chemistry. ‘They are important, both by financing new initiatives and creating a positive environment for innovation. We all share the same ambition.’
ZAP was founded in 2016 and has laboratory facilities in buildings of Hanze UAS. In July 2018, the first expansion, a complex of production halls will be opened, where companies will be able to set up their equipment. ‘Without very active marketing, we have half the space booked. This shows the need for such a facility. We get inquiries from companies all over the country.’
ZAP makes Chemport Europe more attractive to entrepreneurs. And there is more coming: plans are being developed to create a ‘Chemport Industry Campus’, which would host pilot plants, the next ‘Technology Readiness Level’ and scale after ZAP. This shows the importance of Chemport Europe, says Van Linschoten: ‘By providing a full service and supporting all steps of company growth, we attract business activity to the Northern provinces.’ These green chemistry and biotechnology start-ups will provide new jobs for technicians and scientists.
ZAP has received funding for five years. It is co-funded by the Northern Netherlands Provinces (SNN), Spatial Economic Programme. In 2021 the facility must be self-supporting. Van Linschoten is confident that this will be the case. ‘We are part of the very healthy Chemport ecosystem. And we are a vital link in the chain from lab to production plant.’