He’s like the Father Christmas of the University: Professor Gert-Jan Euverink gives presents to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). These presents are in the form of University help with projects relating to a biobased economy.
Euverink held his inaugural lecture last Tuesday. The auditorium in the Academy Building was too small for all his guests, so some of them had to watch it by video link in another hall. This is rather unusual, and shows what an extensive network Euverink – who started his career at the University of Groningen in microbiology and carbohydrate research before moving on to running a high-throughput screening facility – has built up. He left in 2004 to join Wetsus, then a new centre of excellence for sustainable water technology.
Euverink returned to the University of Groningen two years ago to become Professor of Products and Processes for Biotechnology in a Biobased Economy. He is in charge of the BioBrug (BioBridge) programme, which forges contacts between University research groups and local businesses that are involved in the ‘biobased economy’.
Euverink’s message for his audience at the inaugural lecture was in part a familiar one: oil is running out and we need a more sustainable, biobased economy. It is a huge challenge to use biological resources as efficiently as possible and Euverink’s main contribution here will be to involve SMEs in bringing biobased technologies to the market.
‘There is a lot of knowledge at universities, but quite often this is not used by businesses’, Euverink explains. Small, local companies especially lack the manpower, the knowledge and the time to make the most of the scientific knowledge available. ‘My job is to link these companies to a scientist.’
Euverink uses Master’s students for this. ‘University professors are very busy, as are businesspeople, so it is hard to get them together. This is why I use students. They do a placement at the company under the supervision of a professor.’ Normal student placements are supervised by a generalist mentor. ‘In my project, the mentor is a professor whose expertise is closely linked to the problem the student is working on during the placement.’
Students spend between one and six months on these projects, and what they do can vary from a literature search to lab work. ‘We get a lot of students from the Industrial Engineering and Management programme, but also students of, for example, Physics, Chemistry or Environmental Studies.’ Euverink himself works at the Institute for Technology and Management at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.
‘During their placement, the students get to know the company. Quite often, they don’t realize there are plenty of interesting potential employers in the region.’ At the same time, the supervisors get to know these businesses and the issues they are dealing with.
The SMEs get free advice. ‘We do ask them to pay the students an allowance during their placement, but we pay the professor, who has to invest 10 percent of his or her time in the placement. We only take projects that have a direct link to the University’s research, so we can learn from them as well.’ The funding for this programme comes from SNN, a joint organization of the three Northern provinces (Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe), which aims to strengthen the economy in the region.
There is funding for 150 projects; so far some 60 have been awarded funding since the BioBrug project started in November 2011. ‘We have done lots of different projects. For example, a company that makes preserved flower arrangements was looking for a more environmentally friendly way to preserve the flowers. And now, in a second project, they want bio-based dyes to maintain the colour.’
A company using algae to produce raw materials wanted a literature search, a company that produces biogas from glycerine was looking for alternative sources for its glycerine, and a chemical company wanted some marketing research done on the use of biobased PET plastics.
‘The projects range from technology to business studies, but they all relate to creating a sustainable, biobased economy.’ But how does Euverink decide a project really is ‘biobased’? Euverink pauses for a moment. ‘That’s difficult. We wouldn’t do projects that involve petrochemical plastics or non-biological materials.’
But biotechnology is perfectly possible, says Euverink, who has a background in this. ‘As long as it generates sustainable results. Even water treatment would be interesting, as wastewater is a source of biomass!'
Apart from running the BioBrug programme, Euverink is also assembling his own research group. ‘Research was not a big part of my previous job at Wetsus, so I need to start from scratch.’ He decided to tackle the problem of getting lab-based inventions to market. ‘This involves scaling up lab procedures to an industrial level. Scientists work with milligrams to grams; businesses need kilograms just to evaluate the product.’
Scaling up isn’t just a matter of buying bigger reactors. ‘A 1-millilitre flask has completely different properties from a 10-litre reactor. Mixing, temperature: everything behaves differently.’ So it takes a lot of research to scale up production.
Which is why Euverink came up with an alternative. ‘Small-scale production works in the lab, so why not use many small-scale units in parallel?’ The added advantage is that there is no need for a big investment to increase production capacity. ‘Quite often, start-up companies will invest heavily in equipment that meets their projected needs, which means they have overcapacity for the first few years.’
Euverink is using a 3D printer to design small-scale production units. ‘That way, I can make prototypes when I need them. Furthermore, I’m not one for designing things on a screen. I’d rather have a prototype that I can hold, so I can see what needs improving.’ The 3D printer takes just a few hours to print such a prototype. ‘Once the design is perfected, you can have it mass produced using more durable materials, if necessary.’
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