DPI’s IMPACT: Beyond just 25 years
With a history spanning more than 25 years, DPI is a world-renowned research organisation, that helped shape and define polymer science and innovation across the globe. As a creator of an international network between leading industries and scientists. As a pioneer of a unique approach to creating knowledge and competence in the polymer industry. And as a means to make research cost effective and efficient for all stakeholders. DPI did this, alongside pushing the boundaries of research competence and focusing on longer term solutions.
Programmes under DPI, unlike corporate R&D and grant based academic research, can focus on long term innovation. Though the projects are pre-defined, they also generate momentum to take them beyond the programme’s immediate objectives, and into longer term partnerships and economic applications. The fact that it has also inspired institutes based on a similar concept, in countries like Finland, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, is a testimony to its success.
Connecting the dots
Throwback to the mid 90s. The Polymer processing and producing industry in the Netherlands is thriving. As a key contributor to the national GDP, it is larger than the electronics and steel industry. Both corporate R&D departments and knowledge institutes are investing in polymer technology and acquiring knowledge. It is here, in the midst of this decade, that Hans Weijers, former Minister of Economic Affairs, came up with an ambitious plan to set up Leading Technology Institutes (LTIs). These would make better use of promising industrial sectors in the Netherlands. When the call for proposals was sent out in 1995, DPI founders Piet Lemstra, Leen Struik and Jan Zuidam see opportunity.
From idea to reality
The founders have a virtual institute in mind. Instead of yet another institute that would focus on its own development and growth, it would focus on the science and how best to facilitate research and create solutions. The plan is ambitious. Leen Struik, “We thought of an LTI specialising in polymers. Our LTI to-be would concentrate on enhancing and expanding the existing chain of knowledge by taking industry and science out of their own bubbles and have them collaborate on new insights, knowledge and innovative applications”. Having a virtual institute, as opposed to a brick-and-mortar setup and body, removes a lot of constraints. It will help make the DPI platform more international and diverse. However, there is a lot of criticism and lack of understanding on how the partnerships would actually work. The only way to make it work was to work at it.
Building a knowledge infrastructure
On 28 April 1997, the Dutch Polymer Institute (DPI) comes into existence. With this, begins the work of setting up a knowledge infrastructure and building a community. The establishment of DPI addresses several gaps that exist. First of all, the existing imbalance between research and education, which has caused a shortage of competent polymer experts. Second, an increasing demand for competences to support the ongoing diversification process in industry. And third, the need to organise industrial research more cost-efficiently. For example, companies often worked simultaneously, in silos, on common themes in their respective corporate research programmes. It made sense that they could lower costs by conducting some research jointly.
The early years
The industry is enthusiastic. Piet Lemstra: “We have the big players on board right from the planning stage: AkzoNobel, Shell, Océ van der Grinten, DSM, Dow, Montell, GE Plastics and Philips. Others sign up as well. We set up four clusters: one for producing polymers, one for processing, one for characterisation, and one for applications. We invited scientific institutes to come up with research proposals in these areas. And when the scientific institutes are reticent, we challenge them.” Leen Struik: “According to you this is an easy problem to solve; so solve it for me.” And then proposals come in. The scientists from the academic world turn enthusiastic about the opportunities at DPI and the first group pours their energy into it.”
A unique approach
The DPI concept represented a unique value proposition: industrial competitors pool resources, work together in non-competitive areas, generate synergy and inspire each other. This is DPI’s added value as compared to the universities. Understandingly, not all companies were comfortable with the idea of joining forces with competitors, initially.
The question of Intellectual Property Rights was addressed right away. In the initial years, DPI would create a patent portfolio based on funded projects. Future research within the model would then be (partly) funded by licence fees from the patent portfolio. Unfortunately, this approach was not sufficient to ensure the continuation of DPI.
After an intermediate period, DPI came to the current way of managing IPR. The inventing party is owner of the IP now and they must report the invention to all the industrial partners in the programme. In case of interest, the inventing party and interested entity can start their own negotiations.
Reorganisation and reset
Right on the verge of the new millennium, the market collapses. The plastics industry hits a downturn. Companies’ focus moves from long-term development to ensuring immediate profits. Piet Lemstra: “People have to do their long-term research somewhere”. So, DPI reorganises the system. Technology Areas (now called programmes) are set up to focus on application areas. Partners are asked to purchase research tickets. More tickets they have, the more say in a certain Technology Area. This approach works. And it appears that the initial idea - to innovate by means of interaction - still has potential. The industrial partners remain involved and government support continues. DPI grows, both at home and internationally.
Expansion of the focus areas
“The technology areas more than doubled”, says Jacques Joosten, Interim Managing Director of DPI, and Managing Director since 2005. “Plastic electronics and bio-inspired and bio-based polymers also join the list. In addition to our long-term research strategy, we felt that there was a stronger need to commercialise ideas”. That thought materialises into the establishment of the DPI Value Centre (from 2007 to 2017). This results-driven centre aims at developing new initiatives, and strengthening current ones, in start-up businesses, small and medium-sized enterprises, and major corporations.
Steering towards new opportunities
The direct government funding for DPI stops in 2014. It is replaced by a more general subsidy scheme based on the Top Technology Sectors policy. This new scheme is much less favourable for institutes like DPI. It has a negative bearing on both expertise and employment in the polymer sector in the Netherlands. It also results in a gradual shift towards a shorter-term, application-driven focus. Research programmes are steered towards current industry needs, with less room for long-term, generic research. Consequently, internationally oriented companies that are looking to expand, turn to countries and regions that prioritise research in traditional areas of polymer science and tech, like in Asia. On the other hand, this development also leads to opportunity for a new activity. DPI starts organising post-academic courses in some areas, especially polyolefins, for the benefit of companies who can’t find college graduates with the required expertise.
Support from the industrial partners keeps the DPI platform going. Despite the lack of public funding. However, it does bring its own challenges, that continue to impact the way DPI works.
Long term scope vs application-based projects
Since inception, exploring new areas in the common interest of industrial partners is a key DPI mandate. Following the change in funding, there is a gradual shift from ideas-driven research to more problem-oriented research, with change in scope for initiating projects. Unlike companies in Asia, for example, most of the industrial participants would define the scope of research as a few years, instead of considering the long-term goals.
Sustainability and circularity
Plastics/Polymers play a big role in challenges that society is currently facing, especially when you talk about energy transition and circular use of plastics. But there are also lots of challenges - mostly in sustainability - lying ahead. Companies face the same struggle as society: Sustainability vs cost aspect. These are questions that are imperative. In the conversion process from carbon building blocks into plastic materials with specific functionalities, circularity has become a prerequisite for success. Converters have to make choices, between petroleum-based and bio-based raw materials, for example. Or between the use of organic chemistry and electrochemistry, which plays an important role in e.g. hydrogen fuel cells.
Thanks to its strong worldwide network, DPI possesses a unique competence: knowing what industry needs and knowing what academic expertise is available and where.
DPI has made groundbreaking contributions to the world of polymer Science and Technology. Leveraging the collaboration between the various participants, the outcome of the projects, and activities has helped move the industry and science forward, in various areas.
In the past 25 years, DPI can account for more than 1000 research innovation projects, involving over 1500 researchers, 60 companies and 90 research institutions. There have been 2490 scientific publications, 320 PhD theses and 120 patents.
Jacques Joosten, Interim Managing Director & Managing Director, DPI, since 2005: “The most remarkable element to me is the scientific quality we have achieved.” DPI has been monumental in creating and advancing polymer science expertise in Europe and beyond”. Several researchers have been upskilled through various projects, by being a part of DPI, and are part of a well-regarded, active, international knowledge community. And because of the interaction with industry, it offers them lucrative career prospects.
Projects under DPI have also led to the creation of standardised infrastructure and tooling. For example, High throughput experimentation research that focussed on methodology and technology development, resulted in development of tools that found wider application. A standardised tool kit that includes ICT tools, modelling tools and miniaturisation tools is being used in industry-related groups such as Polyolefins, Engineering Plastics and Functional Polymers.
By leveraging the collective expertise and resources of its members, DPI has been successful in facilitating the development of new polymer materials with improved properties and the advancement of technologies for recycling plastics.
Facilitating the future
The Polymer world is transforming and so are the challenges that it faces. “Stepping into a new development phase, DPI must not only continue its work in the established programmes of precompetitive basic research, but also broaden its scope and branch out into areas that are important for tomorrow’s world”: Jacques Joosten. A relevant example is DPI’s involvement in CPI, the recently launched Circular Plastics Initiative, for which DPI has teamed up with ISPT (Institute for Sustainable Process Technology). Together they are working on building responsible, circular value chains in plastics.
DPI had always had an international mandate and character that just grew organically, with the evolution of the industry. Being a virtual institute made it possible to involve international companies and local knowledge institutes from those countries, across the globe. “We are second-to-none in what we offer to the world of Polymer science and technology”. The future sees DPI continuing in its facilitating role, connecting the industry and academia, in a bid to address both knowledge and environmental issues, and create long term impact.