Thursday, 28 October 2010

Rodney Townsend interview

Prof. Rodney Townsend’s tenure as chairman of the SusChem board has now come to an end after just under three years at the helm of one of Europe’s leading technology platforms. He formally stepped down as chair at the September board meeting and will be succeeded by Paul-Joël Derian of Rhodia. During a recent interview at the European Parliament building in Brussels, Prof. Townsend talked to SusChem News about the ETP’s achievements and looked to future challenges.

SusChem News: In your view what have been SusChem’s main achievements during your chairmanship of the board?

RT: When I took over from the very able chairman ship of Alfred Oberholz in 2008 SusChem had already set an extremely good framework in terms of its Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) and Implementation Action Plan (IAP).

A first big achievement - and like others, this was a team achievement – was to move from being just a very good framework to being an effective instrument for concentrating and channelling Commission money into chemical and biotechnology research. And an important part of examining how effective we are at this was the measurement and analysis framework that was set up so well by Dechema. This has allowed us to monitor the funding allocated to ‘SusChem inspired’ projects in both the NMP and KBBE areas. Being able to show the level of achievement for SusChem in terms of the level of funding in FP7 projects (more than €800,000,000) has proved to be a very useful instrument for further engagement with the Commission at various levels.

So there are really two linked achievements here: we started to move forward to become an instrument that brought substantial funds – hundreds of millions of euros - to chemical and biotechnological R&D and we were able to measure and therefore demonstrate this effectiveness to the Commission – a significant positive feedback loop.

Visionary projects
SusChem News: Are there any specific projects that are highlights for you?

RT: Yes the F3 factory is an extremely good example of a demonstration project that we originally put forward in the SRA and IAP that has now been brought to a very tangible result. The F3 Factory is about Fast, Future, Flexible manufacturing – hence the acronym. It is something that the chemical community can actually touch, look at and, most importantly, use to solve problems and get new insights. Another important component of this success has been the bringing together of a large number of companies from across Europe, together with Commission money, to produce a significant project in terms of resource (nearly €30,000,000). The project is being hosted by Bayer in Leverkeusen, Germany.

In parallel there have been many European projects that will contribute to the realisation of the Integrated Biorefinery visionary project proposed SusChem. The F3 factory project will also play a role there.

Alongside that there is some disappointment. We had high hopes for the Smart Energy Home (SEH) project, but this has moved in other directions, partially due to economic circumstances, but perhaps this was a little too far removed from the obvious chemistry and biochemical aims of the platform for it to be one that we could take forward with SusChem clearly in the lead. I remember vividly some MEPs asking me questions exactly related to that when we highlighted the SEH at a meeting in the European Parliament.

SusChem News: How about the actual structure of SusChem – how has that changed over the past few years?

RT: I think we have developed a much stronger and clearer management structure – albeit with limited resources – and we are particularly grateful to Cefic for its support here. Following the excellent work of Marian Mours, he was replaced over two years ago by Ger Spork, who has also been a tower of strength in the same role as Marian, as the SusChem coordinator at Cefic. As a result of their efforts and many others we now have highly focused management groups and working groups.

Related to this – and this is a significant differentiator for SusChem compared with some other technology platforms – is that we can and have moved fast to respond positively to changing external circumstances. Just as we did originally at the beginning of SusChem in 2004, we do not just respond to announcements from the Commission, but we actually get in place ideas and thinking that anticipates Commission policy. We don’t just want to react to external events – we want to shape these events proactively.

All this has put us in a strong position now in pressing the case for chemical and biotechnology involvement in Innovation Partnerships within the recently announced Innovation Union. This strong position had been boosted by our early championship of innovation to press a plausible and logical case for chemical technologies to take a lead. Whether we shall succeed in that endeavour only time will tell – we are working on a major proposal for an Innovation Partnership led by the chemicals industries at this very moment, and if it doesn’t run it will not be for lack of trying! In addition, I am very confident that with Paul-Joël Derian we have an excellent new chairman who will continue to drive the process forward – he is doing this already!

Skills for the future
SusChem News: SusChem has achieved a great deal in terms of research funding but what about the human resources angle?

RT: Another extremely pleasing highlight is the way we have been taking the skills project forward. We deliberately moved SusChem into the field of addressing the skills and competences that are needed for chemical industry and biotechnology in the future. This was coupled with surveys of what chemical and downstream user businesses see as their needs and this approach has been very fruitful and is another strong support for our ongoing discussions with the Commission and other bodies.

SusChem News: How do you see the future for SusChem?

RT: We are entering an uncertain phase. No one knows how the successor to FP7 is going to fully shape up. But we do know that this year is very critical within the decision–making process within the Commission. Therefore it is critical that SusChem continues to develop its strategy in the right direction and keeps its profile high in the right quarters. In the next two to three years SusChem has to continue to ensure that chemical technology and biotechnology is at the core of whatever emerges out of FP8. I don’t think that there is any certainty here at all at the moment.

The SusChem team has worked very hard and has grasped well the opportunities of the past. And I still see a very enthusiastic group that is determined to clinch a deal on behalf of chemical and biotechnological industries.

Finally, I have been very honoured and proud to lead the SusChem team as Chairman for nearly three years. Throughout this period I have appreciated the support of all my colleagues in our endeavours and I wish Paul Joël Derian all the very best for the future as he leads us towards further SusChem successes.

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