An interview with Boris Mannhardt, BIOCOM AG: People need to know that bioeconomy is not just an abstract concept

The role of the education sector in the transformation process towards a more sustainable economy still seems to be underestimated

“Bioeconomy in everyday life” @ BioBased World 2015 in Frankfurt am Main

“People need to know that bioeconomy is not just an abstract concept. What we need is a coherent narrative with clear explanations of what bioeconomy is, and how it can contribute to a more sustainable way of living”. To say it, in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista, is Boris Mannhardt, CEO of BIOCOM AG, an information specialist for biotechnology and Life Sciences that provides markedly diverse products and services Boris Mannhardt joined BIOCOM in 2007 and established the service business unit there. Previously he spent more than 6 years in seed and start-up financing of biotechnology companies. He holds a degree in molecular biology and did his PhD thesis at the German Cancer Research Center. He talk with us about information and education on bioeconomy, presenting also the exhibition “Bioeconomy in everyday life”.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Boris Mannhardt
Boris Mannhardt

Information and education on bioeconomy is one of the priorities for the European Commission and the Member States. As far as you’re concerned, what should be done to make public opinion aware that bioeconomy is not a niche?

People need to know that bioeconomy is not just an abstract concept. What we need is a coherent narrative with clear explanations of what bioeconomy is, and how it can contribute to a more sustainable way of living. If we succeed to explain what bioeconomy means, it will be evident that it is not a niche topic. And, of course, we need effective public engagement strategies for this.

Within the BioSTEP project, we met with several bioeconomy stakeholders in Brussels last month to discuss ideas about what is needed for a more effective engagement in the bio-based and circular economy. Let me just stress a few of these recommendations that are especially relevant to answer to your question: in general, engagement instruments are most effective when applied locally. One tool to raise awareness is through exhibitions or pop-up stores that address real life topics and connect it with bioeconomy issues. Hands-on bio-based products can demonstrate what bioeconomy means in real life. In this way, people learn to understand that bioeconomy is already present today, and not a niche topic for experts. That’s why exhibitions can be effective instruments to initiate a dialogue with visitors about the challenges and opportunities across the field of bioeconomy. The role of the education sector in the transformation process towards a more sustainable economy still seems to be underestimated. Thematic events at schools and tailored learning materials could build interest for the subject. Why not develop “cool” smartphone apps and games that can be used for teaching? In addition, useful online platforms with easy to understand information can be set up to explain the bio-based and circular economy. In Germany, we are taking up this challenge and designed on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The website provides comprehensive data and facts on the current state of bioeconomy in Germany, for a broader public with videos, interviews, and portraits – but it also offers plenty of news for the professionals.

Certainly, your exhibition “Bioeconomy in everyday life” plays a prominent role in this scenario. What are the elements that compose it? And where will it be possible to see it in the coming months?

The “Bioeconomy in everyday life” exhibition presents a variety of products, which contain components made of renewable raw materials, or which are produced using bio-based procedures. Imagine a fabric made of waste materials from the citrus production in Italy, or an armchair that is tanned with olive leaves instead of tanning agents based on heavy metal salts such as chromium. In the exhibition, we show innovations from all over Europe where biological resources and innovative technologies are used to replace unsustainable products and processes. With these innovations, we are trying to show that bioeconomy is already a part of our daily life.

Within the EU-funded BioSTEP project, you will have the chance to visit the exhibition:

  • in the AmbienteParco in Brescia, Italy from the 19th of April until the 7th of May
  • in the Fenice Green Energy Park in Padua, Italy from the 10th of May until the 21st of May
  • at the Avgustiada, Stara Zagora, Bulgaria from the 13th of October until 15th of October

Outside the BioSTEP project, the exhibition will be shown:

  • at the European Biotech Week at the European Parliament in Brussels from 25 of September until 29 of September
  • together with BBI at the Bioeconomy Investment Summit in Helsinki, December 2017
  • at the Global Bioeconomy Summit 2018 in Berlin, organised by the German Bioeconomy Council

Traditional media seem very distracted with respect to the issue of bioeconomy and sustainability in general. What is the reason from your point of view?

Both, bioeconomy and sustainability are multifaceted topics. On the one hand, this diversity is attractive as it provides a wide range of interesting innovations in different sectors. On the other hand, it prevents that a strong “bioeconomy community” establishes across different scientific disciplines and commercial sectors. Often, daily and national media cover interesting developments in the field of biotechnology, synthetic biology, bioenergy or sustainable packaging without explicitly referring to it as a bioeconomy-related topic.

One example: recently there has been a lot of talk about the use of moss as an air filter. Mosses absorb CO2, gaseous air pollution, fine particulate matter, and provide an ideal environment for bacteria that break down organic matter. Their ability to serve as filter systems in large intersections is currently being tested by researchers and entrepreneurs. Hence, this is an attempt to improve air quality with the help of mechanisms established by nature. Another very interesting example that received a lot of media attention is a shoe created by German sporting goods producer Adidas and German biotech company AMSilk that is made from silk biopolymers – replications of natural silk – and 100% biodegradable. These examples show how some innovations that certainly fall into the field of bioeconomy have received broad media attention, but have not necessarily been recognized as bioeconomy inventions.

For this reason, I would say: Interest and innovations in the field do exist, however, the link to the overarching framework – the bioeconomy – often does not take place. On the one hand, one could argue that this link is not important as long as new promising innovations emerge. On the other hand, if all these initiatives can be assembled under one common roof, it may be easier to raise awareness for these new products, and to build consumer interest, as well as to acquire political or financial support.

Recently, the Mediterranean countries have been protagonists in Europe. Spain, Italy and France have presented their national strategy on bioeconomy. What do you think are the main differences between the bioeconomy in North and South Europe? What should be done to support bioeconomy at the EU level?

To my knowledge, these bioeconomy strategies have not been carefully evaluated and compared yet. I know that the German Bioeconomy Council is currently updating its Synopsis of National Bioeconomy Strategies and will therein take a closer look at the recently published strategies. The updated Synopsis will be published and presented during the upcoming Global Bioeconomy Summit in 2018.

Generally, I can say that the strategies of the North are very technology- and innovation centred. Northern Europe has a strong forestry sector and assigns an important role to it in its bioeconomy strategies. The Finnish strategy even stresses that “the significance of the forestry sector in Finland has been and will be great, as over one half of Finland`s bioeconomy today relies on our forests” (Finnish Ministry of the Environment). Besides the traditional exploitation of wood-based biomass, the northern countries put a strong focus on the advancement of innovative high added value timber products and novel products made from wood ingredients. Southern Europe in contrast is quite agricultural and has a lot of agricultural residues to use, and just recently set up their political strategies regarding bioeconomy. This shows that bioeconomy is a true pan-European topic – and every region or country will find its own local emphasis.

However, to establish a strong European bioeconomy sector, all EU member states should work together, evaluate their strategies, share best practices and learn from each other’s success and mistakes. Additionally, I am of course looking forward to the decision of the Commission whether there will be a new bioeconomy strategy. A strong EU support for the bioeconomy sector is key to further advance on a local or national level. If there is less motivation on a European level, the support for national strategies may also decrease.

In what way, from your point of view, the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US will be able to have influence on the development of the European bioeconomy?

Principally, less cooperation among states is never a good sign regarding the global challenges we are facing. Reduced support by the United States for the transition to a bio-based economy can lead to uncertainties in the relevant markets and induce less investments in the long-run. At the same time, both the rather fossil-friendly attitude of Donald Trump and Brexit could potentially lead to relocation of US-based companies from the life science sector towards EU countries – if they find a more supportive and commercially interesting environment. However, this is speculative and economy works on a global basis. From this perspective, we should not only have an eye on Trump and Brexit, but also keep watching out for what happens in Asia and Africa, where a growing interest in bioeconomy is establishing, too.

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Il Bioeconomista
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