“Five or ten years ago, chemical companies were traditionally initiating the first contact with the potential customers but now that’s really been flipped on its head and that first contact is initiated by the engineers. And it is a digital contact, not a personal one.”
For developers and suppliers of bio-based chemicals, one of the main obstacles standing between success and failure is finding the right co-development partners. Helping that process, the omnipresence of technology connects people across the globe and makes that connection easier in one sense, due to the fact there is an active audience. But it also throws up a big challenge: with a seemingly infinite number of possibilities, where does one start?
One company has been addressing this very issue since its inception 18 years ago. SpecialChem helps formulators and suppliers navigate the choppy digital waters with their online platforms dedicated to the chemical industry – from plastics, elastomers and polymer additives to coatings, adhesives and cosmetics ingredients. Explaining how it does this the founder and CEO of SpecialChem, Christophe Cabarry, spoke to Bio-Based World News about the company’s modus operandi, the impact of digitalisation on the bioeconomy, and why it’s “frustrating being a marketer in the chemical industry”.
That source of frustration relates to joining the dots between the huge numbers of applications and bio-based products that are available in the bioeconomy today. “It’s no mean feat to protect and maintain margins that exist in very long value chains with so many decision makers, and it makes marketing difficult and very complex,” Cabarry says.
“That was the reason for starting SpecialChem; we wanted to harness the digital tech that was emerging at that time to make marketing and innovation in the chemicals and materials industry not only easier but faster, more effective, less expensive and measurable. At the forefront of these marketing and innovation needs, you will find bio-based products. These are still the dynamics of our company today.”
That move taken by Cabarry back in 2000, “when no one was really anticipating digitalisation of their company’s marketing or sales or even their innovation” has recently accelerated with a digitalisation wave hitting all sectors of the economy, the industrial sector at large and now bio-based chemicals.
The most transformational aspect is that customers themselves are digital. “All the engineers, formulators, material engineers spend a lot of time online to look for the solutions they need. During the exploration phase of their projects, they will select 3 to 4 suppliers, for example using specialized platforms like SpecialChem, and then initiate the contact. They are taking control” says Cabarry. “Five or ten years ago, chemical companies were traditionally initiating the first contact with the potential customers but now that’s really been flipped on its head and that first contact is initiated by the engineers. And it is a digital contact, not a personal one. Because of that change, companies need to adapt. It goes much deeper than just buying CRM software and having a nice website. It has to be more transformational in terms of redefining their market interaction processes.”
Unsurprisingly, Cabarry says that usurping fossil-based products remains the original challenge for bio-based products but it’s that very challenge that also potentially offers the key. “It is making their life more difficult, but also forces them to be more innovative in bringing the right products to market. The number one source of innovation is hunger. The bar for them is higher.”
The acceleration of digitalisation can offer big benefits to those companies in the bioeconomy, especially regarding innovation, Cabarry explains. One of the keys for the success of bio-based technologies is to rapidly find the right co-development partners, i.e. the ones ready to pay a premium versus traditional alternatives or to co-invest in the development of their application. “It’s great for innovators because implementing digital methodologies like crowdsourcing or open innovation on the relevant online communities can help them find the right partners more rapidly and more systematically. It can also work for large companies releasing new products because it breaks down the barriers of time and distance even for them.”
That strong community aspect that the @SpecialChem founder speaks of isn’t just good for business, it also mirrors the way that people work in the bioeconomy today. “No one invents alone now – the days of lonely inventors creating something in a lab with no contact with potential customers until the product is fully ready are over. Today it’s about collaboration between the supplier of the material holding the tech, and the industrialists who will be able to use it and jointly develop the applications of it.”
But how does one choose the right organisation to partner with? Well, that still remains an area that has been constant over the last 18 years, explains Cabarry, and not everyone gets it right. “Typically you have a start-up with a new biopolymer, for example, and they know they can’t develop it alone – so to develop the application and the tech they tend to rush and want to form partnerships with large companies.” Clearly, those big companies represent a big potential market for them, admits Cabarry, but those same companies aren’t agile or fast. “They’re definitely not going to push to develop the innovation as fast and furious as a start-up company would.”
Christophe will be speaking at World Bio Markets in Amsterdam on March March 20th-22nd.
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Cabarry advises to look towards the smaller to medium-sized firms, or the “hungry seconds” as he calls them. “You’ll have a better interaction in the market with them as they often need your innovation and they’re ready to invest resources quickly. They will also share their knowledge more readily than the big companies, which are often that way because the big companies want to own the innovation for themselves.” And again, the use of digital and agile methodologies can help companies to find those “hungry seconds” faster, and in the end even accelerate the whole product development process itself.
As for the future of the bioeconomy, Cabarry predicts that production costs will be driven down as bio-based products are more widely adopted, a change that is in the hands of the big suppliers, he says. “What could change the game is if retailers or big brands decide to change the game themselves. They could, for example, foster the adoption of bio-based products, create labels or certifications to force an entire industry to make a move. I think that big companies will increasingly use this argument to gain market share.”