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Bioeconomy research delivers results of practical relevance

The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts has been funding the "Bioeconomy Research Programme Baden-Württemberg" since 2014. In his role as the chairman of the Strategy Circle and Steering Committee Professor Dr. Thomas Hirth has been instrumental in shaping the programme. Hirth is the longtime director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Stuttgart and since January 1, 2016 he has also been the Vice President for Innovation and International Affairs at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Dr. Ursula Göttert from BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg talked with Prof. Hirth about how the bioeconomy has progressed in Baden-Württemberg.

What is your assessment of the results that have been achieved by the 60 or so subprojects of Baden-Württemberg's bioeconomy research strategy?

Professor Dr. Thomas Hirth, Vice President for Innovation and International Affairs at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology © Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

First let me give you a short summary of the origins and structure of the programme. The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts published a bioeconomy research project call in 2013 based on the Strategy Circle’s final report and the research priorities it proposed. 54 subprojects were selected by an expert jury and received funding from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts. The funded projects were assigned to one of the four following research priorities: the development of sustainable value chains for producing biogas, the use of lignocellulose for producing biobased products, the use of microalgae for producing food and the simulation of bioeconomy systems. Experts from different research disciplines have been working together in each of the subprojects to develop value-creation networks in areas ranging from biomass production and processing to product manufacture. Researchers involved in the subprojects have also been assessing the economic and environmental impacts of the products and processes that have been developed.

After a run-time of three years, we are now in a position to say that these cooperative activities have yielded excellent research results. Moreover, the programme has generated a large number of publications in scientific journals. The projects have also led to practice-relevant results, which now serve as the basis for industrial cooperation and the establishment of spin-offs.

Aspects that I personally find particularly important are the strengthening of the close cooperation between different disciplines and institutions in the field of bioeconomy research, and increasing the supraregional visibility of bioeconomy research in Baden-Württemberg. These aspects have also been dealt with successfully.

Glossary

  • Biotechnology is the study of all processes involving life cells or enzymes for the transformation and production of certain substances.
  • Selection in a biological context means the assortment of organisms due to their characteristics. On the one hand, this could be natural selection ("survival of the fittest") like in evolutionary processes. On the other hand, selection by man, e.g. breeding, is called artificial selection. Artificial selection is also used in genetic engineering to identify a genetically modified organism due to its new characteristics (e.g. resistance to antibiotics).
  • Plasticity is the attribute of organisms to change their characteristic values under the influence of environmental factors. Therefore, neuroplasticity is the characteristic of neurons to change their response behaviour dependent from their activity. In most cases, the strength of the synaptic transmission is influenced (synaptic plasticity). The neuroplasticity or synaptic plasticity, respectively, is considered to be the basic mechanism in learning processes and in the formation of memories.
  • The symbiosis between different organisms within their environment is called ecosystem.
  • Biomolecules which can bind active agents are called targets. They can be receptors, enzymes or ion channels. If agent and target interact with each other the term agent-target-specific effect is used. The identification of targets is very important in biomedical and pharmaceutical research because a specific interaction can help to understand basic biomolecular processes. This is essential to identify new points of application.

What will happen when the funding programme comes to an end in late 2018?

Projects in the first funding round receive financial support for two to three years. Some of the projects have already been terminated or will be concluded in 2018.

The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts has launched another call for research projects relevant to one of two funding lines. The first funding line covers cooperative projects with a concrete transfer perspective and targets implementation of the results of the first phase of the research programme. For me, this is of major importance. The second funding line will provide support for new innovative bioeconomy approaches.

In my opinion, developing and implementing a bioeconomy strategy is a long-term task in which science plays an important role as a driver of innovation. With its decision to fund bioeconomy research projects, the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts emphasises the importance of science in the establishment of a bioeconomy. We are therefore very grateful that the funding programme is being extended until 2020. Due to the strong connections they have established within the framework of the bioeconomy research programme, Baden-Württemberg universities and research institutions are now jointly applying for funds from German and European bioeconomy-related research programmes. In addition, joint research projects will use existing structures for technology transfer and start-up projects to a greater extent. This is how bioeconomy research becomes sustainable.

To what extent has the bioeconomy research strategy strengthened Baden-Württemberg's competitiveness?

Many scientists have managed to acquire funds from other national and international funding programmes with research topics they had chosen for the Bioeconomy Research Programme Baden-Württemberg. This shows that the chosen topics have potential. For example, food security and resource efficiency in connection with sustainable food production will play an important role in the future European Food 2030 research strategy. With their expertise and experience from the Bioeconomy Research Programme, Baden-Württemberg research institutions are very well prepared for research that focuses on food and nutrition security.

By jointly developing a research strategy and creating distinct profiles, Baden-Württemberg universities have positioned themselves very well. They have also managed to bring together a large number of relevant topics and expertise. This alone is great added value for Baden-Württemberg. Within the scope of an extended concept of knowledge transfer, we also see ourselves as important contacts for all stakeholders in the fields of science, industry, politics and society on bioeconomy-related issues.

Moreover, Baden-Württemberg is increasingly perceived as a strong bioeconomy location, both on the national and international level. This success is down to joint public relation activities and the organisation of scientific meetings such as the Bioeconomy Congresses in Stuttgart.

How has the bioeconomy developed in Germany since you became chairman of the first German Bioeconomy Council that advises the German government on how to implement a bioeconomy strategy?

In 2010, Germany adopted the “National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030”, setting the course for a knowledge-based, internationally competitive bioeconomy. In 2012, this research strategy was supplemented with a Bioeconomy Policy strategy. Since then, industry, science and government have put a great deal of effort into developing Germany as a leading bioeconomy location. However, changing general conditions due to lower oil prices and the discovery of new shale gas sources have prevented the bioeconomy from delivering its full potential and bioeconomy products have only been able to play a significant role in niche areas.

Since 2010, Germany has developed into a leading bioeconomy R & D location. A future bioeconomy industry sector, which encompasses all economic sectors that produce, process or sustainably use biological resources in any other form stands to benefit from this situation. This includes sectors that are particularly important for Germany such as the timber industry, the forestry sector, the timber construction industry, the paper and pulp industries, the chemical industry, the plastics and plastics processing industries, the energy industry as well as the machinery and plant engineering industry.

Which measures do you think are best suited for raising public awareness of the bioeconomy?

Baden-Württemberg universities are to a growing extent integrating the bioeconomy into the academic curriculum. This is being done through special study programmes such as the Bioeconomy master’s programme at the University of Hohenheim as well as elective modules offered by engineering and science study programmes at other universities. Moreover, the Bioeconomy Research Programme Baden-Württemberg has established the BBW ForWerts graduate programme as another important element for turning young academics into bioeconomy experts.

At the same time, it is important to raise awareness amongst the general public in order to promote sustainable consumption patterns. This includes information on careful use of resources and the environmental impact of production processes as well as measures aimed at protecting the climate and ecosystems. If developed effectively, the bioeconomy can play an important role in achieving the sustainable development goals of the German government, and the United Nations.

Publications and information about structures and events that have emerged from the Bioeconomy Research Programme Baden-Württemberg can be found at www.bioeconomy-research-bw.de.

Website address: https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/news/biooekonomie-forschung-liefert-praxisrelevante-ergebnisse/