CREATING an £800 million sector by 2025 and helping Scotland achieve its aspiration to become more sustainable in its use of materials in all walks of life – two of the aims of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), the latest in our eight-week study of the country’s innovation centres (ICs).

Most of our fuels and energy, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, come from petrochemicals, a finite, fossil-fuel resource that is also leading to significant climate change, and an imperative for these industries is to move away from these to sustainable sources. This is where industrial biotechnology (IB) comes in, using biological substances and processes to produce materials, chemicals and energy.

READ MORE: Scottish science leader makes everyday products sustainable

IBioIC CEO, Roger Kilburn, is in no doubt it will happen: “The fundamentals of what we’re trying to do are going to happen, because they have to happen. But the how, when, where, what, with what raw materials etc are all up for grabs and that’s where the uncertainty is.

“Scotland has an aim to become more sustainable in its use of materials, so we fit well with that policy. We focus largely on the chemical-pharma side rather than the fuel side, mainly because the fuel side is the lowest value end and because the chemicals can’t easily be replaced.

“The government talks about – and I hate the word because it’s misleading – decarbonising. It’s not about that it’s about using sustainable carbon.”

Kilburn says the carbon-containing petrochemicals will eventually be replaced by sustainable carbon-containing materials that won’t come from fossil fuels, such as plants, using “short-cycle carbon”.

“Decarbonisation is misleading – it sounds good because you’re getting rid of fossil fuels.

“It is about getting rid of fossil fuels but it’s not about decarbonising.

“Our focus is to start weaning the chemical industry off its reliance on fossil fuels and start encouraging it to use sustainable feedstocks.”

Each of Scotland’s ICs encourages industry to make better use of academic assets – all are hosted by a university – and Kilburn says they work in different ways to convert their “fantastic research capacity” into economic value.

“There’s a greater opportunity to do that in new and emerging technologies,” he says.

“Three of the ICs are focussed on emerging technologies, of which industrial biotechnology is one, three focus on existing sectors and two on cross-cutting technologies.

“Each one of them needs to use their academic assets slightly differently because the problems are slightly different.

“All are encouraged to create industrial communities and in IBioIC we decided to have a paid-for industrial membership programme, not as a significant revenue generator, but on the basis of how do you know if a company wants to work with you?

“You ask them to put some money into it and they have to justify it to their own management and themselves.”

And he says it was a move that paid off: “At the last count we had 111 industrial members paying to be part of the IC, so we have quite a large industrial community.

“Only about 45 per cent of those companies have a Scottish footprint, so there’s a lot of interest from outside of Scotland.”

IBioIC works with a vast range of companies, from multinationals like GSK, Unilever and Diageo to micro companies with just one or two people, and everything in between, a process that brings benefits to them all.

It is also involved with up-and-coming firms such as Celtic Renewables, which uses spent grain from whisky to produce chemicals; CelluComp, which uses waste root vegetables to extract nano-celluloses for thickening agents, from shampoos to oils and food products; and Marine Biopolymers, which extracts algae from seaweed - an industry that disappeared in the 1970s – which now has a higher value as thickening agents.

“Our annual conference has grown year on year – we had 451 attendees at our last conference. In our sector a large European conference might attract 500-600, a global conference might attract 1000. To get a regional conference with 450 is phenomenal.

“And they come from all over, partly to hear about what’s going on in Scotland but also because it’s an important industrial event.”

And he’s pleased with the progress his IC has made as it prepares for its second round of funding, converting the “valley of death” into a “chasm of death”.

“We’ve helped companies a little bit further along their innovation journey, but we haven’t got them to the promised land – commercialisation.”