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Why chemical companies opt for the TopDutch region

The chemical industry in the TopDutch region is transforming. Its chemical cluster, Chemport Europe, has an ambition to rapidly become more sustainable, which is attracting green chemical companies. Technology company Avantium and pioneer Photanol recently settled in Delfzijl, one of Chemport Europe’s two locations. ‘It's great to end up in an ecosystem where sustainability is widely supported’ says Veronique de Bruijn, CEO of Photanol.


Changing the nature of chemistry

Choosing to settle in the north of the Netherlands, known globally as the TopDutch region, is due to the chemical cluster’s mission: Changing the nature of chemistry. By 2030, the cluster will be a biochemical hotspot, mostly using and producing renewable raw materials. This attracts sustainable entrepreneurs, according to the Investment and Development Company for the Northern Netherlands (NOM), which is responsible for strengthening the economy in the TopDutch region by financing and acquiring companies.

Technology company Avantium opened a pilot plant in the region - location Delfzijl - in 2018. Avantium uses its biorefinery to convert wood chips into glucose, an important green raw material for the chemical industry. ‘Delfzijl came out on top, because of the business partners present here: Staatsbosbeheer (the Netherlands' national forestry service) supplies wood residues from forests in the Provinces of Groningen and Drenthe. Our ‘neighbor’ Nouryon supplies hydrochloric acid that is needed to refine the wood chips. At the same time, Nouryon is a potential buyer of the glucose extracted from wood chips. As a third partner, the energy company RWE purchases lignin - also a product of refining - as a fuel’, explains Avantium’s Chief Technology Officer, Gert-Jan Gruter.

The Netherlands has more than 2,000 chemical companies, spread over eight chemical clusters covering the entire supply chain. Of the 25 largest chemical companies, like BASF, Shell, Dow Chemical, and LyondellBasell Industries, 19 companies have branches in the Netherlands.

Delfzijl was also logistically attractive to Avantium, because of its location by the sea. ‘Via Groningen Seaports, we can easily import wood residues from Scandinavia or the Baltic States if production increases in the future.’ What also played a role, according to Gruter, is that ‘Chemport Europe still has the space to expand, which is good in light of our future plans.’

Gert-Jan Gruter, CTO Avantium

Avantium was attracted by the ‘can-do’ mentality of the TopDutch region. For example, the technology company wanted to build a pilot plant near the Nouryon chemical group. That turned out well, says Gruter. ‘Chemport Europe offered us the opportunity to convert an old fire station into a pilot plant. The business cluster provided all facilities necessary and guided us through the permit applications. The whole process went smoothly.’ That same mentality is also visible in the chemical cluster’s joint ambition to become green, according to Avantium’s CTO. ‘Recently, the cluster realized a biosteam pipeline. Furthermore, there are plans to produce emission-free hydrogen at a large scale. We're also very interested in the use of hydrogen in our production processes.’

Initially, Avantium did have one objection to settling in the TopDutch region. ‘When we first looked around here, Delfzijl was mainly a production site. There were few research facilities that we need as a technology company,’ says Gruter. So, Chemport Europe met Avantium’s need. The business cluster ensures that pilot plants are facilitated in every possible way. ‘Currently, there’s 24-hour support in the event of possible machine malfunctions.’

Renewable energy

Green future

Newcomer Avantium was so happy with their decision to move to the TopDutch region, that the technology company very recently decided to open a second pilot plant. This demonstration plant will produce mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) - a raw material for plastics - from biomass. ‘By choosing this location, we can deploy facilities and employees efficiently’, says Avantium’s CTO Gruter. But that wasn’t the only reason: Avantium uses hydrogen for the new technology. ‘Green hydrogen - hydrogen produced from renewable energy - production in the TopDutch region will soon be upgraded to a large-scale. Currently, industry standard ‘gray’ hydrogen - hydrogen produced from natural gas - is readily available, but the fact that in Delfzijl we’re so close to the future green source is a great advantage.’ Avantium therefore sees - just like the further established companies - plenty of opportunities in the TopDutch region. 

Appealing sustainability ambition
A second newcomer to Chemport Europe is scale-up Photanol (see case 2). Seven years ago, CEO Véronique de Bruijn heard about Chemport Europe’s sustainability ambition. During a conference in Leeuwarden, she spoke to Errit Bekkering, business development manager at NOM. That conversation laid the groundwork for the move: At that time, De Bruijn secretly hoped that one day her ambitious company could set up shop at Chemport Europe. Bekkering also liked the idea: Photanol fitted seamlessly into the region’s green chemical sector. The company use bacteria, solar energy and COto produce organic acids, which are natural raw materials for the chemical industry.

The region has a large ambition to boost green chemistry and is investing in it.

Véronique de Bruijn, Photanol

However, Photanol had other priorities in 2012: The Amsterdam based start-up had just demonstrated that it had mastered their new technology following extensive testing in a mini pilot plant. The company was ready for the next step. For this scale-up phase, Photanol found an investment partner in AkzoNobel. The chemical group wanted to make its products greener and strongly believed in Photanol’s technology. After several years - over which the technology was further refined - Photanol became the producer of organic acids for AkzoNobel SpecialtyChemicals’ bioplastics, a facility which has been known as Nouryon since October 1st, 2018.

High knowledge density 
Nouryon and Photanol chose the Delfzijl location, where Nouryon has a branch office. Both companies saw the already present companies’ proactive attitudes to working together on green innovations as a major plus. For example, Photanol’s pilot plant is located inside the fence of Nouryon’s premises. De Bruijn explains: ‘We'll be capturing the COfrom Nouryon’s factory’s chimney. Here, we’ll demonstrate that we can also produce on an industrial scale.’

Véronique de Bruijn, director Photanol

For Photanol, the proximity of the University of Groningen (RUG) and the Hanze University of Applied Sciences - located nearby the city of Groningen, known as Zernike Campus - is important. ‘Many biobased projects are developed at the Zernike Campus. We work with students and researchers in a test environment: Zernike Advanced Processing. The knowledge density is high,’ states De Bruijn.

The process of settling in the TopDutch region went smoothly for Photanol. ‘For a sustainable entrepreneur, it’s great to end up in an ecosystem where sustainability and becoming green is widely supported. We don’t need to convince anyone here of our ambition. This saves time when applying for permits. Not only that, there are all kinds of financial incentives to aid sustainable entrepreneurs. The region has a clear ambition to boost green chemistry and is investing in it.’

Delivering on promises
Permit applications take time and often cause uncertainty. However, according to Errit Bekkering of the NOM, the institute that deals with the process of settling, applications are processed faster here compared to other regions. ‘Although, the amount of time it takes a company to obtain the necessary permits depends on the type of company’, adds Bekkering.


Settling in the TopDutch region

NOM supports new settlers with information about the region and its available locations. Advantages of settling in the TopDutch region include the reliability of the national and regional government, the knowledge economy and the excellent infrastructure. ‘In the Chemport Europe area, it’s a bit less difficult to find qualified personnel, the work ethic is better and so is the knowledge of top-level chemical and physical processes’, adds Bekkering. ‘Land here is more affordable than other areas of the Netherlands and the location - near the Ruhr area - is attractive. The cluster is located near a seaport and an airport. The energy supply is amongst the best in the world and is stable, reliable and increasingly green.’

‘Many entrepreneurs are given a tour of the locations that are interesting to them’ Bekkering explains. They also get a glimpse of the cluster’s ecosystem. ‘Potential newcomers are often surprised at how interlinked the business processes are here. That too is a unique selling point of the region. The business network in the Northern Netherlands is very transparent - we know each other well.’ 

Newcomers are surprised by how business processes in the Northern Netherlands are interlinked and appreciate the short lines of communication.

Errit Bekkering, business developer NOM
Errit Bekkering, business developer NOM

Potential newcomers also visit the Zernike Campus: a vibrant workplace where students, companies and researchers work together on challenging, innovative projects. ‘An innovation process is easy to organize for every company in the TopDutch region. That too makes it a unique place to settle.’ 

If an international company decides to settle in the TopDutch region, it can count on NOM’s guidance. ‘We arrange for the application for permits, but also facilities such as steam, electricity, water purification facilities and logistics. We also know how a company can attract talented personnel.’ 

Finally, NOM supports the financing possibilities. A company may be eligible for a subsidy from the Regional Investment Fund Groningen (RIG). It can also turn to NOM for venture capital.

Soft factors
‘For chemical concerns, the choice of a location is primarily an investment decision. Every company compares the costs to settle here with those of competing regions’, Bekkering points out. The price of land is significantly lower here. However, in the end - besides the cold figures - it often comes down to soft factors. That might be the availability of knowledge, or the joint sustainability ambition of the TopDutch region.’



Headquaters: Amsterdam
Location of biorefinery plant: Delfzijl
Established in 2000
CEO: Tom van Aken

Avantium was founded in 2000 as a spin-off of the energy company Shell and is a technology company in renewable chemistry. Together with partners from all over the world, the company develops sustainable technologies and products from green raw materials. The company proved able to make plastic bottles from sugar plants. There are plans for a factory that will produce this ‘sugar bottle’ on a large scale in Antwerp.

In Delfzijl, Avantium opened a pilot plant in 2018 for the production of glucose from ‘second generation biomass’: green residual products such as wood chips. The company expects to open a commercial factory in 2023 for the large-scale production of industrial sugars from wood residues. The expected production capacity is 135,000 metric tons of biomass per year. In addition, Avantium developed a process to produce mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) from biomass as a raw material for plastics.



Headquarters: Amsterdam
Location of pilot plant: Delfzijl
Established in 2008
CEO: Véronique de Bruijn

CO2 eaters
As a spin-off from the University of Amsterdam, Photanol developed its groundbreaking technology in 2008: using only bacteria, solar energy and carbon dioxide (CO2), it is able to produce organic acids. These acids can be used as raw materials for bioplastics and cosmetics, for example. Because of the cyanobacterium, better known as blue algae, there is no need to use polluting raw materials. ‘We no longer need oil or biomass, only CO2’, says CEO Véronique de Bruijn. ‘Cyanobacteria love carbon dioxide.’ 

‘Just like plants, algae works by photosynthesis: they use sunlight to convert the carbon dioxide into sugars’, explains De Bruijn. ‘With biotechnology, we modify the bacteria in such a way that they can also make other chemically usable products, such as organic acids. In this way, cyanobacteria can also be used to produce ethanol, an alternative to petrol,’ says De Bruijn. ‘In theory, cars can run on it.’ ‘But’, she adds, ‘that requires further technological development.’ According to De Bruijn, the market segment in which Photanol operates accounts for several hundred million euros. ‘With the use of acids for the production of ethanol, for example, market opportunities run into billions worldwide.’


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