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TNO Technology Clusters accelerate innovation at SMEs

07 Jul 2016

Innovation is vital for SMEs. TNO's Technology Clusters are an accessible way of acquiring new knowledge, which companies can harness almost immediately to create new product-market combinations. A range of Technology Clusters were launched this year, among them two in the areas of biomass and dyes.

Technology Clusters, or TCs for short, are a commonly used instrument at TNO. There are currently forty of these clusters, each of which has a six-month lifespan. “It is a type of project in which we transfer knowledge to a group of businesses (usually five) that all have the same question”, explains Erik Ham, SME programme manager at TNO. TCs are used in a variety of sectors, from chemistry, IT and high-tech, to construction and healthcare. “It’s actually a practical class in which businesses are involved. In many cases, a series of sessions are organised for the purpose of sharing knowledge. A small part of the project takes place in the laboratory, to prepare demonstrations, for example.”

Existing knowledge, fewer risks

TCs are always based on existing TNO knowledge that can be channelled to a wider audience in this way. Mr Ham points out that “TCs focus on applying existing knowledge, not on generating new knowledge in the context of a research project. This means that the applications are almost ready for the market, so the risks for businesses are a lot smaller. This gives businesspeople a much better feel for the state of the technology and for how it ties in to the market. They can then use this to tap into new product-market combinations. Our goal is to put technology to practical use. After all, knowledge is worthless if you don’t apply it. So we use it to help business owners develop their companies.”

Trust

The TCs are a win-win situation for businesses, the sector and for TNO, says Erik Ham. “SMEs are very close to the market, and they have excellent instincts where that is concerned. We are very keen to hear about issues that excite the market. If SMEs become aware of a commercially interesting event that stands a good chance of being successful, they leap into action straight away. Things work differently in large businesses, where the decision-making procedures generally are longer. SMEs move very fast indeed. But they must be confident that the technology in question can be of real practical value for their market segment. That’s why we created these technology clusters. They are an accessible way of familiarising businesspeople with new technology, which they can then incorporate into new products or services. Once the TC has run its course, the knowledge acquired is shared with at least twenty other SMEs, to stimulate further innovation in the sector.”

You too, can join in

Do you have a knowledge-related question that is of commercial interest to your business and your industry? If so, get in touch with TNO.

Below, you will find two examples of TCs in the area of ​​Sustainable Chemical Industry.

TC From grass to gas

Biogas is often produced from agricultural or industrial residual streams, such as manure, food waste or organic waste. However, grass can also be a commercially viable feedstock for biogas. A group of nature conservation organisations and estate management organisations contacted TNO. This was because they all ‘produce’ large quantities of grass, which can serve as a biofuel. To this end, the grass must be fermented using bacteria. However, grass is difficult to ferment. It contains a lot of fibres that these bacteria cannot break down effectively. “We went looking for a process that would enable us to get as much gas from grass as possible”, says Matthijs Vonder, Senior Technical Scientist at TNO. We located a party in India that has developed a cost-effective technique for fermenting residues from coffee fruit and water hyacinths. These plants have a similar composition to grass, in that they also contain large amounts of fibre. The nature conservation organisations and the gas producer formed a TC and went to visit the fermentation company in India. The installation there uses specific bacteria that are able to break down the fibres. This makes it possible to convert a greater proportion of the biomass to biogas, leaving less residual material behind. In addition, the quality of the residual water is still sufficiently good for it to be returned to the natural environment without treatment. This TC has now run its course. “The project was well received and the results are very promising”, says Mr Vonder. “The TC has the given the participants an insight into this technique’s potential. We have demonstrated that this technique can also be applied to grass in the Netherlands. For them, it also reduced the risk involved in the next step, as they were able to confirm that the technique does indeed yield the desired results before investing in it themselves.’ The nature conservation organisation is currently developing a follow-up programme. It will now proceed with tests to determine whether it can efficiently convert Dutch grass to biogas.”

TC Natural dye as a new market opportunity

In recent years, natural dyes have been in great demand. Unlike chemically synthesised dyes, these materials are derived directly from the natural world, and possibly also from residual streams from agriculture, horticulture, or the food industry. Special refining processes are used to extract specific colour-determining molecules from plants. These molecules can then be added to dyes or cosmetics, for example. Paul Bussmann, Process Technology Team Leader at TNO, points out that “TNO has extensive experience in biorefining”. For instance, it operates a pilot plant that can isolate molecules from raw materials. This infrastructure is currently being used to isolate indigo (a dye) from plants by means of a refining process. The members of this TC, which is scheduled to be launched in the near future, include indigo users (such as dye producers and cosmetics producers), plant breeders, flower growers, and plant growers. The entire chain participates. The parties are complementary to one another, so they are not competitors. “There is nothing random about the way we forge this chain”, Mr Bussmann adds. “The plan is for them to supply one another with products.” For example, the plant breeder supplies propagating material for a new indigo blue flower to the flower grower, who then cultivates this propagating material further. The processor supplies the dye to the dye producer, who then supplies their product to a textile producer. This enables the latter to create beautiful indigo blue clothing, for example, that has been sustainably produced. “The purpose of this TC is to make existing technology readily available to SMEs. Together, you soon get an idea of the business you can generate by this means.” In the coming months, the participating businesses will visit one another in rotation. The pilot plant is easily transported, so it can be used for on-site demonstrations to determine whether the dye in question has the properties required to create a new product.

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