ECO-INNOVATIONat the heart of European policies
Stef Denayeris a master navigator. Today, he is negotiating his way around Brussels ahead of a 9:30 meeting while talking to EcoAP News about the importance of eco-innovation and cleantech in an evolving political and environmental landscape. Two decades ago, he helped Van Gansewinkel Group, the biggest waste management operator in Benelux, navigate the changing economic landscape from linear ‘take, make, throw away’ principles towards more ‘closed loop’ thinking. After joining Cleantech Flanders two years ago as a business developer, he steered the relatively new organisation’s expanding portfolio of green and clean technology start-ups in a range of themes – from energy and mobility to materials and water – and helped them scale up and grow internationally. His vision and navigating skills landed him the Cleantech Flanders managing director’s job after one year. With the support of the Flemish Government and deep insights into the sector, Cleantech Flanders has set ambitious targets to grow, connect and promote the Flemish cleantech ecosystem in Europe and beyond. Here is what he had to say about that…
What does eco-innovation mean to you? What is at stake?
After nearly 15 years in this area, and from my experience as a formal Cradle to Cradle Team Member, I see so much being done ‘after’ market in the waste sector, but not enough attention to the ‘before’ market needs. We need to think how to re-use material elements better from the start, from the eco-design up, to give a second and third life for returning materials. Despite the ambitious ‘circular economy’ drive at European and now national levels, in reality full life-cycle production is still only a drop in ocean when looking at the total market. The transition isn’t happening fast enough. Even in the best recycling regions like Flanders, which has the highest rate in Europe at 65 %, we still find mixed waste materials and plastics in so many things. They’re difficult to disassemble and sort in the cycle. It’s mostly down-cycling at the moment. How can we change this? At Cleantech Flanders, we really think consumers have to change their habits. When I buy a washing machine, I take it home with a limited warranty and if something goes wrong after that, it’s my problem. That has to change. Initiatives like ‘‘Circular Flanders’ are the way forward. More than 100 organisations have committed to a ‘green deal’ for consumers who only pay to use a ‘thing’, not purchase it outright. That means producers retain ownership of the asset and have to deal with repairs and ‘afterlife’ concerns. This could be a disruptive new production-consumption model that helps to close the loop in the circular economy.
What are the greatest challenges facing SMEs entering and/or scaling up in cleantech?
SMEs struggle for recognition. They have a tiny budget for marketing and communications, so we help them get noticed, put them in contact with the right people, and coach them on pitching in some projects. Finance is really the biggest hurdle. Start-ups can need large sums to start production and for front-end engineering and design, or FEED, but traditional investors like banks are conservative. Risk aversion is common; they want guarantees and that’s hard for SMEs with innovative technologies to provide, so Cleantech Flanders helps them mitigate the risks with financial support to match their growth needs to the right capital, whether start-up or scale-up.
What does Cleantech Flanders do well in relation to SME internationalisation?
We have an extensive network that I’m proud to have helped build for connecting cleantech businesses at events and so on. Our partnership with Flanders Investment and Trade helps open doors because they have an active footprint in other regions, and they also scope new tech, eco-innovation and market opportunities for us. No need to reinvent the wheel, we can use the Flemish community around the world!
What are the hot trends our readers should watch out for?
Oddly enough for Belgium, which traditionally has plenty of rain, water shortages and costs are now a big issue. Climate change has indeed changed things a lot, and the hot weather and drought conditions we’ve just experienced is worrying industry. They’re asking us about our water security projects, how they can up-cycle and recycle water. It’s a positive new focus and we already have many tools for that. Carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) – transforming it into materials and new chemistry – is another area of growing importance. Big regions like Ghent are serious about this, with plans to build a large-scale CCU hub within 1-2 years, so we see it is moving from talk to action.
How do you see the role of the EcoAP? What can it do to promote cleantech or eco-innovationin general?
Eco-innovation in industry/production is of course important, but we see a large opening for EcoAP to push towards consumer awareness, with better indicators to motivate them and create a mind shift in purchasing habits. The consumer needs to push the button, and industry will follow. There are lots of opportunities there, which could be a turning point for EcoAP.