5 Minutes With… Sarah Hickingbottom from BioVale.

5 Minutes With… Sarah Hickingbottom from BioVale.

“Connection is everything. Connection across sectors, across job functions, across ages, and across supply chains.”

BioVale is a not-for-profit UK-based organisation, supported and steered by regional industry, research organisations, higher education and government. Launched in 2014, the BioVale cluster aims to ensure the Yorkshire and Humber region is at the heart of the rapidly expanding UK bio-economy industry. Its goals are ambitious; the bio-economy – already worth around £8.7 billion to the region – could rise to £12 billion by 2025, and provide an extra 800 jobs with the support of BioVale and its partner organisations.

Here, Liz Gyekye, senior content manager for Bio Market Insights, catches up with BioVale’s CEO Dr. Sarah Hickingbottom.

Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With. Can you begin with a description about BioVale (@BioVale_Cluster) and what it is the organisation does?

Sarah Hickingbottom (SH): BioVale is one of the UK’s only bio-economy clusters. Clusters are quite big in the rest of the world, but not so established in the UK. We act as a link between all different facets of industry, including innovation, entrepreneurship and networking. We can support with guidance with feedstocks and supply chains, end users and grant applications. However, our main focus is on innovation, which is key to helping the bio-economy develop. We are a spin out from the University of York, so we have great connections with all the phenomenal research that is coming out of there and other research institutions. We want to help create commercial-scale supply chains.

In terms of sectors, the bio-economy acts as an umbrella with numerous sub-sectors. For example, food waste, particularly unavoidable food waste. You can turn food waste into feedstocks for other supply chains. This fits into the wider circular economy.

We also have a focus on high value chemicals from plants. And we look at smart agricultural technologies. BioVale has two Special Interest Groups with one of these focused on anaerobic digestion. This a growing sector in this region.

We are led by our members and have around 420 members. It’s easy to join on our website and currently it’s free. You don’t necessarily have to be based in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Our members are predominantly in the UK, but we have a handful of members from around the world. We are here to support our members at a grassroots level to build a new bio-economy.

We also work with big industry and have strong relationships with companies like Drax (@Draxnews) and Croda (@CrodaInc). Other stakeholders include public bodies. Our goal is to bring people together that do not normally come together. Connect across subject specialities. We are a multi-faceted organisation.

We are linked to bio-economy clusters in France, Netherlands and Germany via a network called 3Bi as well as being cluster members of the Bio-based Industrial Consortium (BIC). As a cluster we represent SMEs to give them access to BIC grants and have a seat at the table alongside big industry.

We provide help to overcome the stumbling blocks stifling the commercialisation of the bio-economy. Once you have left the lab, it’s quite brutal out there.

Connection is everything. Connection across sectors, across job functions, across ages, and across supply chains.

LG: Before getting into your role at BioVale, what were you doing?

SH: My background is quite international. I am new to my role at BioVale and started last September. I’m an organic chemist by training and spent a long time in the consulting world in the private sector. I worked on bio-based chemicals, fuels and plastics. I really looked at the facts, in terms of economics, market entry strategies, competition with petroleum and company profit and loss. Essentially, I looked at the whole operation in terms of profit and loss.

I have a strong background in agricultural commodities too as I worked with LMC International on their agroindustrial supply chains.

Indeed, the whole bio-based chemicals industry started by using waste products and converting them into useful products such as soap and detergents.

LG: Is the green agenda in the UK moving forward?

SH: Yes, it is. The UK has recently brought out its Bioeconomy Strategy and BioVale was part of the effort to make this happen.

There are amazing new technologies coming out and great research being done in the bio-economy space at the moment. Commercially, the UK has to grapple with the fact it may never have the domestic bio-based feedstock supplies needed for large-scale fuel, power, chemical or plastics industries but our innovation is world-class. And in the field of the circular economy – using waste streams as feedstocks – there is nothing to stop us from leveraging that innovation to build supply chains that tackle the global challenges of sustainability and climate change.

LG: What challenges does your organisation face?

SH: Funding is going to be one challenge moving forward with Brexit looming etc. and investor/government uncertainty. We need to build strong bio-economy community more urgently now than ever before. It’s about getting the message out there. Converting a dry database of ‘contacts’ into a network of relationships. An innovation ecosystem. It takes three or four useful interactions or meetings before your contact becomes part of your network. BioVale facilitates those meetings.

LG: What’s coming up next?

SH: We have a big project called THYME funded by the UK government. It is a £5 million project to develop the bio-economy across Yorkshire, the Humber and the Tees Valley, led by the University of York. The project is part of a multi-million investment to drive university knowledge exchange across the UK and industry sectors via Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund. As part of this project, we are doing a lot of entrepreneurship training, working with academic and linking to industry.

York is a hot place to be for bio-economy innovation.

LG: What advice would you give to someone starting out in this space?

SH: Focus on the end user and marketplace. What problem are they struggling with that you are solving for them? If you solve a problem better than your competitors, you will go far. To do this, talk across industries, be curious and have heaps of bio-ambition.

LG: What’s your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?

SH: I like the principle of somebody taking a waste stream and turning it into something incredibly useful. Then that waste stream itself becomes a valuable feedstock.

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