Senior managers are used to the concept of developing new products to exploit the limitations of competitors or to complement their existing portfolio. But few have the knowledge and expertise to see how their technology can be redeployed in another industry sector or used to satisfy an unmet customer need.
However, extending capabilities into new domains creates the opportunity for sustained growth, according to Dr Steve Bone, co-founder of nu-Angle who says: “New growth platforms provide a framework for building families of products, services and business processes. The scale of these growth platforms is of strategic importance to an organisation.”
Dr Bone, is used to advising multinational companies on their technology strategies. On behalf of R&D Today he spoke to Dr Ronald Hage, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Catexel, a leading oxidation catalysis company, about how it has developed its technology platform and used it to grow the company.
The video below shows Dr Hage discussing with Dr Bone how Catexel implements their technology strategy.
If you have difficulties with the video on this page it can be viewed on YouTube here.
Catexel has developed a unique technology platform based on iron and manganese compounds applied to a range of industrial applications including textiles, coatings and detergents. The company has a strong track record in global manufacturing, but new opportunities, in new markets, are continuously under exploration. Of particular interest is the extension of the technology from textile cleaning to paint drying.
SB: How has Catexel evolved its technology platform?
RH: Catexel is a Unilever Ventures portfolio company and it has developed a library of manganese and iron bleach and oxidation catalysts for industrial markets. We have two centres of excellence, with all of the application work is conducted in Leiden and the organic synthesis and catalysis research done at the University of Groningen; where one of our team members works.
Our catalysts originally came from external academic groups; for example, the Dragon catalyst originates from a group in Mülheim in Germany, and the iron catalyst – that we’ve found to be active for paint drying – comes from Heidelberg.
All the catalysts we have originate from academia, which demonstrates the importance of keeping your eyes open for new developments in the field. By working closely with universities we make sure we get the best outputs.
We often seek input from a wider ecosystem of universities and laboratories around the world, who help by looking at challenges from different perspectives. For example, we have an extensive library of manganese and iron catalysts but what if we need to do something with a copper catalyst? We would need to go to experts in copper oxidation chemistry and build from there.
SB: Have you got an example of how you have created a growth platform?
RH: We have worked in this area for over 20 years so we understand the chemistry as a company extremely well. You get a gut feeling about what is and isn’t possible.
Of course you have internal discussions, and you hear from the commercial team about gaps in capabilities of current technology or problems our potential customers are faced with.
If you understand the chemistry behind those problems, then you can make connections and generate ideas. Our team has an innate curiosity in the field that they work in and regularly read papers on topics outside their expertise as it could just trigger that ‘lightbulb’ moment. It’s difficult to define how to get ideas, but this ‘read across’ has been key to technical commercialisation success at Catexel.
For example, some years ago we were working on an iron catalyst for stain bleaching detergent cleaning applications. I was reading some articles on paint drying catalysts based on cobalt, and realised that it’s the same chemistry.
The paint industry is under pressure as the use of cobalt is being restricted for toxicity reasons, so there is considerable interest in an alternative. This was of interest to us as quite a few of the manganese and iron catalysts that we have been working on could be good solutions for those paint applications.
SB: Where does technology strategy come from?
RH: Our mission is to develop manganese iron oxidation catalysts to enable greener, faster, safer ways of working in industrial applications.
Our technology strategy starts with the business strategy, which is developed by the executive team together with the board. The implementation of the strategy is strengthened by the close links between the technology and commercial team.
We regularly have meetings with the whole team, where our CEO, Paul Smith, gives updates on the business development or the strategy of the company. That way, it’s very clear to everyone what the priorities are and we can then see it through to deliver positive change in industry.
SB: How do you decide on the direction?
RH: That’s a good question. As an organisation you have to be adaptable to changes in the market. I think it starts with feedback from the commercial team about the client’s need for a certain application.
I’m a chemist, so I need to translate the type of application into a chemical formula or reaction scheme. Then I can make a link to the known chemistry.
The commercial team plays a critical role, but from an R&D level we also need to make it clear what we have done, how we have done it, and what could be of interest to the company we’re talking to.
Normally people see immediately if there is something to pursue and if it fits with the strategy of the customer, for example to replace chlorine with hydrogen peroxide, which is a much cleaner oxidant.
SB: How does technology add value to the business?
RH: Intellectual assets are at the core of our business. The technology originally comes from the industrial cleaning area, where there was a good IP, but we have gone far beyond that and developed patents that allow us to support the development of innovative solutions for new applications.
SB: How do you manage the team?
RH: We value our people most of all and consider having the right team around us as one of our key ‘tools’. The team consists of a number of permanent staff, but also we have interns from different institutes – regularly from laboratory schools in Leiden or Utrecht, but also from the University of Leiden and other universities in the Netherlands and other EU countries.
A mix of backgrounds and cultural influences creates new thoughts and insights, helping to look at new challenges objectively and from different perspectives.
SB: A problem R&D directors often have is balancing research, development and service; have you found this an issue?
RH: Separating personal from commercial gain can be difficult for a detail-orientated search team and sometimes longer-term programmes have to be put on hold when there is a need for an urgent solution to a problem.
You always try to combine what’s needed internally to deliver the internal business strategy, and doing the right development work to help our customers. We manage this carefully by ensuring open communication with our customers and network of industry partners. Between our staff, management team and investors there is a strong alignment in our passion for delivering positive change and this has allowed us to successfully drive the business forward.
SB: How do you manage ideas?
RH: R&D people are naturally curious and you always have more ideas than you can pursue so you need to select the best ones.
While ideation may be the goal of the process, stopping ideas that aren’t working can be just as important.
The sooner you can stop something, the more time you have to work on something else so that you do not waste resources. What is often overlooked is how many tests need to be done to get something robust to the customer, and that’s hard work. Ultimately though, even if the tests don’t come to fruition, you gain valuable knowledge along the way that can help future projects.
We have worked hard to develop the right tools to enable us to test our library of catalysts for different applications across various sectors, creating small simple cases and trying to predict the best conditions to apply the catalyst.
This makes our data much more believable because it’s not just based on an idea that you’ve come up with, it’s got a lot of very good data behind it.
Sometimes you do the hard work and it doesn’t work and you have to start again. You have to be prepared for that and get into the mind-set that by taking the time to do the tests, you should be able to see much quicker if something is moving in the right direction or not.
To see Dr Ronald Hage talking further about the value of technical commercialisation, watch the video series at www.catexel.com.
For further information, visit www.catexel.com or follow on Twitter @Catexel_global
Interview by Dr Steve Bone of nu-Angle