Yes, we did! Once we heard that Renewable Resources and Biorefineries conference (RRB11) was going to be held in York this year, we couldn’t help but getting involved! The conference was to attract researchers and professionals from all over the world, and we envisaged creating an opportunity for the early-career fringe of participants to connect, discuss togetherthe possibilities and challenges of the bioeconomy, and meet experts in the field.
As early as October 2014, we put together an organising team and started planning our 1-day early-career workshop by the title ‘Building a Bio-based Economy for Europe’. The core team was composed of Jennie, Maria, Tabitha, Giulia, Tom and Karla, with support from Ruth and Rosa, 8 enthusiastic young researchers various corners of the University: Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence (GCCE, Chemistry), Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP, Biology) and the Environment Department. On the 2nd of June, at the Biology Department of the University of York, our workshop took place!
On that sunny morning we welcomed 33 registered participants from all over Europe! The range of backgrounds and affiliations covered was broad and a great vibe was set since the very start!
Thanks to a successful pitch proposal to the Graduate Student Association’s Community Fund bid, Maria and Jennie had been able to secure 5 free tickets available to applicants from the University of York and extra money to support the organisation of the event. The workshop found great financial support from NNFCC Bioeconomy Consultants, who have been co-organisers along with us and NESSE.
The main idea behind this event was to bridge the gap between the different ends of our modern economy providing ground for constructive discussion and enlarged collaboration between parts. We invited academics in the field of biotechnology, chemistry and engineering, and engaged consultancy firms, policy-makers and industries.
The workshop started with representatives of the partnering organisations introducing themselves. Jennie Dodson, Research Associate at the GCCE who introduced the Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists & Engineers (NESSE), followed by Giulia Paggiola’s overview on the activities & impact of the greenSTEMS group at the University of York. Dr. Adrian Higson’s presentation of the vision of the NNFCC consultancy company.
This was followed by an career-themed ice-breaker game to let the participants and senior speakers familiarise with each other and get the interaction started!
The exercise proved to be a big success and set the atmosphere for the central part of the day which included talks from field experts such as Leo Gomez (CNAP), Adrian Higson (NNFCC – the Bioeconomy Consultancy), and Will Cannon (Croda).
After a brief coffee break the workshop re-opened with the “BioEconomy Challenge”, consisting of group discussions guided by the experienced mentors. The attendees were subdivided into six groups and each, swapping tables time to time, had three hot topics to discuss about in a limited amount of time. Very lively discussions arose, due to the participants diverse backgrounds.
What are the key technological challenges for the bio-based economy?
With regards to the first question all the participants agreed on the key technological challenges being process scale-up, yields, downstream separation, logistics, with the integration of renewable sources of energy in the processes as a main technological barrier. Overarching financial challenges were also discussed including need of funding for basic research as well as for pilots development.
What is needed to promote the rapid transition to the bioeconomy?
In response to the second question for discussion policy-makers were seen to have a crucial role for promoting a switch to a more bio-based economy. The transition, as discussed by the participants, could be pushed by additional funding towards the creation of industry/academia collaborations, by promoting open innovation providing training to academics on Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer. Furthermore, the public and the media, influenced by policy-makers, were enlisted as influential factors towards the bio-based economy.
How can we ensure that the bio-based economy is sustainable?
Finally, the third point stirred interesting debates on whether the term “bio” is correctly or misleadingly associated with “sustainable”. A truly sustainable economy shall evolve and employ new technologies and create a standardized certification system. This system shall take into account energy utilization, resource management, waste minimisation as well as workers’ social rights and employment laws. At the end of the session, a summary of all discussions had over each topic was presented by a participant.
Two parallel sessions, focusing on the basics of Biotechnology and Green Chemistry, were organized by Dr. Alexandra Lanot and Lorenzo Herrero-Davila respectively, with the support of Maria M. Razalan and Jennie Dodson.
The Green Chemistry workshop introduced the application and importance of green chemistry within industry, education and research. Green Chemical principles should be applied to all industries through the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. The session challenged whether biobased chemicals are really green. Many green processes can be more environmentally impacting before they are refined due to the scale or other extraneous factors. Green chemistry is not just about making new products and processes it is about taking those processes that exist and changing them so that they are more efficient.
The Biotechnology session covered all the basic concepts of the discipline, from Biology’s central dogma (DNA > RNA > proteins), to the key steps and tools for Synthetic Biology, such as high-throughput DNA sequencing, genetic engineering, cloning and protein expression. All these tools can be exploited for a wide array of downstream applications, ranging from healthcare (through drug discovery and development), to Agriculture & Nutrition (improved crops) as well as Anthropology and Archaelogy studies (through genetic analyses).
Biotechnologies, as ways to make products out of biological sources date back to millennia, for example with the production of wine from fermented grapes, having nowadays a huge impact in terms of Economy and Business. Biotech startups are blooming around the world, with numbers of hands and minds involved rocketing if we also consider the academic connections, IP firms and suppliers. For this reason we believe that it is of great importance to establish a parallel route between Green Chemistry and Biotechnology also creating a dialogue between the technology-makers (academia and industry) to the policymakers and the public towards the development of a greener and more sustainable Economy.
Followed by a brief tour of the CNAP laboratories was also provided by Leo Gomez for interested participants. 🙂
The last part of the afternoon involved two parallel sessions, on commercialisation of science and on influencing policy were run by Dan Wood from UK Houses of Parliament and Ed Green from CHAIN Biotech & Sarah Hosking from Unilever respectively chaired by Giulia Paggiola and Tom Dugmore. The participants evenly signed themselves up for the two sessions, both very relevant to most researchers work.
At “Influencing policy”, Giulia introduced both speakers, Dan Wood and Adrian Higson. In the first half of the session Dan Wood gave great tips on how researchers can – and should! – engage with parliamentarians, outlining the systems that are in place to facilitate contact with relevant Select Committees or local MPs. He also advised on the format and language to use in order to catch the interest of politicians for them to take our cause further. In the second half of the session, Adrian Higson presented a case-study carried out by NNFCC on anaerobic digestion as a real example where the consulting company bridged the gap between government and industry catalysing the implementation of this green technology.
In the end, we wrapped up the day with a discussion about how to take forward the connections forged at this event and build and connect to a larger number of early-career researchers and professionals working in the field of the bio-based economy. Lots of ideas were generated, particularly to use LinkedIn and twitter to share resources, ideas, discussions and career opportunities. Three of the attendees, Iris, Hannah and Emile, are taking forward the ideas of the fantastic group of people who attended with the support of NESSE to reach a wider audience and to continue the connections.
Finally the party started, with drinks and nibbles to end a brilliant day. The feedback from the event was excellent with all of the attendees praising the speakers, the networking and the opportunity to discuss the big issues related to the bio-based economy with such a broad range of people.
The BBEE organising team would like to thank all participants, sponsors and helpers!
-Maria M. Razalan, Tabitha Petchey, Giulia Paggiola, Ruth Haley, Jennie Dodson, Tom Dugmore, Karla Valenzuela Beltran