“China is the largest plastics processing country in the world and I firmly believe that any large-scale commercialisation scenario of bio-chemicals or bio-plastics will not happen without it.”
With a range of expertise that focuses on furthering environmental technologies in emerging markets in Asia, providing access to capital funds and helping European cleantech start-ups to build viable businesses, SusTech Consult provides a vital service to those looking to make their mark in the bio-based industry. The company supports companies from across cleantech sectors, from transport and agriculture, to energy efficiency and air and environment.
The managing director of SusTech Consult, Bruno Rudnik, joins Bio-Based World News for the latest instalment of 5 Minutes With… and gives Dave Songer the lowdown on how the company operates, the inspiration he gained from working in China and where he thinks the big changes will come in the bio-based industry.
Dave Songer (DS): Thanks for joining us, Bruno. You’ve been at the helm of SusTech Consult for seven and a half years now – can you tell me about the company and its modus operandi?
Bruno Rudnik (BR): Sure, SusTech is a boutique consultancy based in Munich, Germany. We support Western cleantech start-ups with their technology upscaling and financing strategies in emerging Markets in Asia, notably China. Typically, we start with identifying market opportunities and defining suitable business models. In most cases we’re also looking for the right local partners, for instance technology licensing, establishing joint ventures or other forms of collaboration. Within cleantech we mainly focus on sectors such as energy efficiency, water and wastewater, waste and recycling and chemicals and materials. Bio-based fuels, chemicals and plastics have become a very important field for SusTech in the last three to five years.
DS: Were you involved in the bio-based industry before SusTech? What inspired you to want to work in it?
BR: Before I founded SusTech in 2011, I had been managing the global chemical industry practice of a major European consultancy. At that time, I was mainly advising large European chemical corporates on their technology and growth strategies in Asia. While bio-based was not a key focus at that time, I started to think about how – and which – green technologies could help countries like China to tackle their environmental challenges. This is where dynamic cleantech start-ups come into play as well as disruptive technologies because we can see them in the bio-based industry.
DS: Interesting, is there anything specific that you learnt from having worked in China?
BR: I’ve been working and living in China for around five years and basically spent the last 15 in China-related consulting. So I have certainly seen a lot of places, people and projects but at the same time the country is so large, diverse and dynamic there’s still much I haven’t seen. The most constant thing over time is change, therefore it’s important you permanently need to update your knowledge on things like policies and technologies. Besides adaptability to change, I would say that China has taught me many times that “China business is people business”.
For an expert view on China's progress in eclipsing the US in synthetic biology,
follow the link to read PatSnap's report on the country's efforts.
DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
BR: It’s not related to a specific project or task, but rather a repeated challenge in terms of understanding the agenda and decision-making criteria of our partners in China, and then aligning them with the interest of the Western company. Furthermore, managing risk in an environment which is never fully transparent and constantly changing remains a challenge. To give you a concrete example: we were recently involved in an investment project in a private industrial park in China, where almost overnight ownership and management were taken over by the local government – it had a significant impact on the implementation of the project.
DS: What advice would you give someone looking to get started in the bio-based industry?
BR: The importance of partnerships; many new clean technologies are time- and capital-intensive in upscaling them. The bio-based industry is probably one of the most extreme sectors in this context, therefore start-ups need to forge intelligent strategic and financial partnerships. But finding the right partners for the right development stage is a challenge that we often observe. The other point is focus. While optionality has its attractions especially from an investor point of view, people get easily distracted by following multiple options, and in the end run out of time. While there a few quick wins in bio-based there might also be early returns, for example from niche applications that help to achieve proof of concept and revenue generation.
DS: How different does the bio-based industry look since you began working in it?
BR: I’ve seen quite some changes in both Europe and China. In Europe it’s been more like a ‘pull’ from consumers and brand owners whom demand more sustainable product offerings. In China, however, it’s mostly ‘push’ from government but with a mid- to long-term policy orientation that is sometimes lacking in Europe. In general, the bio-based industry and its stakeholders have become much more educated with a more comprehensive view on the advantages, but also the challenges, of bio-based solutions.
DS: And how do you think it will change in the future?
BR: Firstly, there will be changes in terms of geography. China is the largest plastics processing country in the world and I firmly believe that any large-scale commercialisation scenario of bio-chemicals or bio-plastics will not happen without it. Also, India – at least in mid-term – offers huge potential both in terms of biomass and downstream specialty chemicals. Secondly, value chains will become much more integrated. While there will be a continued shift towards higher-value products, we need to find concepts for optimised scale and related costs. Some projects will require ‘world-class scale’, while others will work best in a decentralised way.
DS: What major project(s) is SusTech working on – can you provide some details?
BR: While I’m not able to divulge specific details about projects, I can say that we’re involved in several projects for European start-ups and investors that are looking into downstream application scenarios of biomass in China. This includes biogas as well as bio-fuels, bio-chemicals and bio-plastics. Key drivers are recent government policies, such as China’s new ethanol mandate and the general need for higher-value uses of agricultural residues.
DS: You were a speaker at World Bio Markets this year – what did you talk about and what did you most enjoy about the show?
BR: I had two contributing roles: firstly, I hosted a roundtable Session on China at which we discussed opportunities and challenges of the Chinese bio-based market. It was great to see the interest and interaction from brand owners, chemical corporates, start-ups, government representatives and financial investors on the topic. Secondly, at short notice, I also enjoyed the opportunity to moderate a workshop on the investment landscape in the bio-based economy. I really appreciated the opportunity that the roundtable presented me to get in touch with players from the entire bio-based value chain.
DS: What is your favourite bio-based product and why?
BR: It’s neither Bavarian beer nor Chinese Baijiu, a liquor made from grain, as one might expect. In terms of food and drinks, I tend to favour France, especially the robust, no-nonsense fare. And maybe that serves as an analogy for the bio-based chemical industry: we need products with a clear value proposition and from sustainable yet robust supply chains.
DS: Food for thought, Bruno! Thanks for taking part in the interview – all the best for the future.
Read the last 5 minutes with… José Ramos, founder of Visel Biofuels.
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