Business developer Errit Bekkering stood at the cradle of Chemport Europe on behalf of the NOM. In the years that followed, he emerged as a true ambassador of green chemistry in the Northern Netherlands. On April 1, 2023, he will step down. Time for a review of the creation and development of the ecosystem.
Recently he read a striking quote, "You have to leave when it still hurts a little. Errit Bekkering could totally relate to it. Some time before, he had decided to leave NOM after almost seventeen years. As of April 1 this year, to be exact. A farewell, therefore, with a slight pain in the heart. 'I figured out that now I am still of age to do something else,' he says. 'People usually regret the things they didn't do. I want to avoid that, even though I still really enjoy the work. No, I don't have any concrete plans. While working at NOM I don't get that figured out very well.'
As a business developer, Errit's main focus in recent years has been on new applications of agro-resources and the strengthening and greening of the chemical industry. For example, he was involved in Chemport Europe from the very first moment. 'An attractive ecosystem for green chemistry in the Northern Netherlands,' as Errit succinctly describes the partnership between companies, knowledge institutions and governments. The ambition is great. Chemport Europe not only wants to expand the lead of the northern chemical sector, but by 2030 it wants to be the leader in green chemistry in Europe. 'We didn't start from that ambition back then,' he smiles. 'It gradually grew that way.'
So let's start at the beginning. The initiative for what would later be called Chemport Europe was taken during 2014 by Groningen Seaports and the NOM. With an important role for the province of Groningen in the background. It was a time when northern chemical companies were not exactly doing well. Fuelled by high energy prices, a lack of investment and competition from elsewhere, especially growth markets such as China, India and Brazil.
'It was pretty locked in here,' Errit looks back. 'Something just had to happen. Not for nothing had the Willems Committee, a working group led by former Shell top executive Rein Willems, drawn up an action plan in the spring of 2014 to strengthen the economic structure of the Eems Delta chemical cluster. The committee had concluded, among other things, that in the greening of chemistry lay the greatest growth opportunities for the region. For the province to ask NOM and Groningen Seaports to devise and implement an acquisition plan.'
A short time later, Errit boarded a plane to London together with Henri Kats, Business Manager at Groningen Seaports. On their way to an appointment with an international consultant. 'A strong proposition is essential for successful acquisition,' explains Errit. 'So we wanted to get that right the first time. That's why we asked a consultant to support us in getting the proposition right in the first phase.'
It was soon clear that it was necessary to look more broadly than just the chemical cluster in Delfzijl. After all, the cluster in Emmen, which specializes in producing polymers and materials, also plays a major role in the northern chemical sector. 'At the same time, there is an appealing knowledge cluster with a university and colleges where, in the field of chemistry, and its converting, there is a lot of substantive knowledge and talent,' Errit underlines. 'Not to mention an agricultural hinterland including sugar beets, an important source for bio-based raw materials, and a port to import relevant raw materials. In addition, the location by the sea offers plenty of opportunities for generating green energy. So for electrifying processes, for industry mostly the first step in becoming more sustainable.'
Indeed, when you add all these elements together, you have a strong proposition in your hands as a region. Especially after it was agreed at the 2015 climate summit in Paris that the EU should emit at least 55% less greenhouse gases by 2030 and be climate neutral by 2050. But a powerful proposition alone won't get you there, Errit knew. Your story not only has to have the right content, it also has to be convincingly marketed. We therefore engaged a communications agency to give the proposition some face. One of the results was the name Chemport Europe. We deliberately chose a neutral name. So nothing about green or biobased. With the idea that these terms will eventually disappear anyway. Simply because soon all chemistry, if we do it right, will be green.
Chemport Europe was officially launched in early 2017. Errit is pleased with how the ecosystem has developed so far. You can tell from everything, he says, that the proposition is right and that the partnership is working. 'Chemport has grown slowly, step by step. Very organically, as is always the case with an ecosystem. Moreover, in and around the northern chemical sector, there are hardly any conflicting interests. Mutual competition is only present to a limited extent. That makes realizing collaborations a lot easier. In short, there is a shared ambition. You see the name being used more and more by the various parties. Chemport Europe kind of belongs to everyone. In the end, it is the companies that have the biggest impact. They make the investments and take the risk. As NOM we can help to put the ecosystem further on the map, to make choices and ensure that governments are on the same page. So our role is mainly facilitative.'
At the end of 2020, the province of Fryslân and the municipality of Heerenveen also joined Chemport Europe. And so the northern coverage is complete and at the same time the international position of the ecosystem is strengthened with mainly expertise around recycling and circular plastics. 'In the early years, the focus was largely on biobased materials,' says Errit. 'Over time, recycling has been added to that. So in that respect, the recent Frisian input is a logical and welcome addition.'
He is at least as pleased with the way in which the companies and the colleges, MBOs and university work together. Questions from industry are quickly picked up by the knowledge institutes and vice versa companies are provided with valuable input for improvements and innovations. 'A number of programs have also been developed within the educational institutions that tie in very well with what we are doing within Chemport Europe,' Errit emphasizes. 'Think of the SPRONG consortium Making Chemistry Sustainable, a collaboration between the Hanzehogeschool, NHL Stenden, Zuyd Hogeschool and the RUG. By strengthening the position of applied research, the program aims to contribute to talent development and promoting the transition to green chemistry.'
The year 2030 is slowly approaching. Is Chemport Europe on course to soon actually become the European leader in green chemistry? 'Things are still moving too slowly,' Errit admits. 'That is partly due to factors beyond our control. A lot depends on what the CO2 price does and what the European regulations will look like. Ultimately, that determines when and what companies will invest in. Moreover, the footprint of chemistry in the Netherlands is a difficult one. It's about space, water, nitrogen, CO2 and other emissions. It's trial and error in everything you do. It will be, in other words, very exciting. But one thing is certain: we have made great strides together in the region with Chemport Europe in making chemistry more sustainable. Everything indicates that the coming years will be no different. I therefore take my leave with a good and proud feeling.'