Brexit and the Bioeconomy

Posted in: biobased

With Brexit on the horizon, NNFCC and partners Sustainability Consult take a look at its potential impact on the UK and EU bioeconomy.

While it may be fashionable for politicians to dismiss the work of experts, technology companies rely on the expertise of their staff and collaborators, and recognise the value they add. Experts in bioeconomy development and communications NNFCC and Sustainability Consult have built companies through embracing the ideals of European collaboration with staff recruited from across the European Union.

NNFCC and Sustainability Consult have participated in many successful European collaborative European projects including the flagship project BIOSKOH, which is transforming a brownfield industrial site into a 55kt cellulosic ethanol production facility.
Here the companies draw in their knowledge of the bioeconomy, and experience in European projects, to consider the implications of Brexit on bioeconomy development.


The European bioeconomy, the parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources - such as crops, forests, fish, animals, and micro-organisms – to produce food, materials, and energy, is worth EUR 2.2 trillion in turnover, and accounts for 9% of the EU's workforce. While currently dominated by agri-food and traditional forestry and with the food and drink industry representing the largest manufacturing sector in the EU, the economic potential of the bioeconomy lies in new emerging areas, such as biobased chemicals, biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics, and other biobased materials.

An innovative bioeconomy is a key pillar of industrial strategy in both the UK and EU. It is regarded as an important source of new jobs, is an opportunity to develop a more resilient energy system, and could play a significant role in addressing climate change. The production of biobased chemicals, plastics, and transport fuel, coupled with the generation of power and heat using bioenergy, can play a significant role in the move towards a circular and low-carbon economy.

As Brexit draws nearer, what are the implications for both the UK’s and the EU’s bioeconomy?


The growth of bioeconomy is reliant on bringing disruptive innovation to the market. Unfortunately, innovation is too often viewed through the prism of invention and technology development. A vibrant innovation landscape requires a healthy ecosystem which, like any ecosystem, has many components. Innovation requires knowledge development: the learning activities which drive not only technological development but also the understanding of markets, social dynamics, and - critically for the bioeconomy - sustainability considerations. Furthermore, this knowledge needs to be exchanged and diffused among stakeholders to ensure uptake. The generation of knowledge requires resources: materials, infrastructure, expertise, and finance, and these resources need to be available and accessible. Beyond knowledge, if markets aren’t in place they need be formed: this may mean making the case for legitimate development - consider the challenges facing biofuels - and countering the inevitable resistance to change. Critically, entrepreneurial activity is required to turn inventions, new concepts, and processes, into commercial products.

In an emerging market, the resources can be thinly spread, and considerable effort can be required to bring together expert teams capable of creating and distributing new knowledge, and to access the infrastructure in which technology can be developed.

Most biobased chemicals and plastics remain at an early stage of market development. The resources required for development are distributed across Europe and therefore effective mechanisms for collaboration and joint working are required.

How might Brexit impact on UK research and development?


Developing new biobased products is challenging: the use of renewable resources is an area unfamiliar to most chemical companies: new business relationships must be forged, and value chains created. The raw material supply and refining, chemical processing, and product formulation require collaboration across several countries, stretching the ability of SMEs to network, communicate, and work across national borders. The difficulties encountered by SMEs in forming cross-border value chains, and accessing professional business support outside of their immediate business sphere, is being addressed through the Horizon 2020 SuperBIO project. In this project, European funding allows SMEs to access biobased expertise in Germany, Belgium, France, and the UK. In the same manner, the BIOSKOH project draws together the experience of bioeconomy research and science, industry, business development and communications experts across the EU, notably the UK, Belgium, Italy, Slovakia, France, Sweden and Denmark.

For many companies, collaboration starts with research programmes and projects funded through Europe’s co-operation in Research and Innovation Framework Programmes (FP). UK science is a net recipient of EU research funding and the importance of retaining access to the current Horizon 2020 funding, and the future FP9 programme, has been widely articulated.

The UK is recognised as having a world leading research base: strong in industrial biotechnology, and excelling in synthetic biology. However, collaboration is still necessary and adds value, leading UK companies such as Scottish industrial biotechnology and synthetic biology company Ingenza, and plastics producer Biome Bioplastics, to grow their capabilities through European-funded projects EmPowerPutida, and ZELCOR respectively.

In a positive move, UK and EU negotiators have been able to agree in principle that UK entities’ right to participate in EU programmes, including Horizon 2020, will be unaffected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Furthermore, the desire to participate in future programmes has been made clear and hopefully represents an important goal for UK negotiators. Continued UK participation in European science programmes should be considered a win-win situation for both the UK and EU.

How will Brexit impact on the ability to access on critical resources?


Like all innovation driven organisations, the ability of biobased technology developers to recruit and retain talented scientists, programme managers, and other staff, is critical to business success. The pool of trained scientists in areas related to biobased chemical development - fermentation, microbe engineering, bioinformatics, etc - is relatively small in the UK, and companies routinely rely on recruiting from EU counties to fill specialised and important roles. There are widespread concerns that Brexit is, or will when implemented, make the UK a less attractive place for foreign nationals to work, and make the process of recruiting staff from the European Union an onerous task, and an additional burden on micro- and small enterprises.

Facilities and expertise

Process scale-up, and accessing the necessary equipment and facilities, is a key and potentially expensive step in the development of new process technology. Restricted access to scale-up resources is a recognised barrier to biobased innovation, particularly for biotechnology-based processes. Although the UK has several world-leading open-access Pilot Plants represented by the BioPilots UK alliance, the range of technologies, and therefore associated equipment, is considerable and beyond the capacity of any single pilot plant. The only way to ensure companies have access to the required scale-up support is to enable access to the range of facilities available across the EU. The European Union’s Interreg programme exists to stimulate co-operation across Europe, supporting economic and social development. One strand of the Interreg programme supports transnational co-operation: the project’s investment allows regions to tackle common issues across a range of areas including innovation and environment. Using Interreg IVB investment, NNFCC, as a partner in the Bio Base NWE project, was able to facilitate the access of UK based SMEs to the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant in Gent, Belgium, with the support provided through the project acting as catalyst to further collaboration. Going one step further, Interreg investment in the BioBase4SME project is facilitating SME access to biobased expertise in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK. The project brings together the broad knowledge base required by companies to build an understanding of markets, technology, and sustainability.


The market for biobased products remains at an early stage of formation, and while the resources required for innovation are thinly spread across Europe, there is an imperative to maintain UK access to the mechanisms supporting collaboration, and to keep providing access to facilities and expertise. Critically, Brexit should not become an impediment to UK companies accessing and recruiting world-class expertise and talent. The UK Government has made positive statements about co-operation, and hopefully negotiations will produce a positive outcome allowing biobased companies in the UK to benefit fully from the expertise and knowledge throughout Europe, and European companies to benefit from the UK’s strengths.

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This article first appeared in Speciality Chemicals Magazine. 

This article was written by Bob Horton, Research Analyst at NNFCC, Dr Adrian Higson, Lead Consultant for Biobased Products at NNFCC, and Barbara Mendes Jorge, Senior Consultant at Sustainability Consult.

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