Focus on sustainability: The big three – Prioritising sustainability, R&D and digitalisation

26 March 2024

Ken Kisner, co-founder, Chairman and Chief Sustainability Officer of Albert Invent, investigated the top 100 chemical companies in the world to determine their three main initiatives. Resoundingly, they were sustainability, R&D and digitalisation. Here, he discusses the impact AI can have on sustainability in the chemicals and coatings industries 

Albert Invent was created to digitalise the lab through its cloud platform, bringing all R&D data into one place. Designed around the unique needs of chemistry and materials science, Albert helps organisations accelerate innovation and bring products to market faster and sustainability is a key driver of the mission to digitally transform—especially for the coatings industry.

In this vein, Albert users have access to an extensive knowledge base of chemical information, including properties and interactions, which enables smarter and safer experimentation. This leads to a reduction in the number of experiments run to achieve the desired results, decreasing the overall usage of chemicals during the R&D process. And this is just one example of how a platform like Albert can have a positive impact on the environment while still enabling progress.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what that looks like and how Albert came to be.

Caption: Albert end-to-end R&D platform

Backstory

I grew up on a paint factory floor – my dad owned a coatings company. Our dinnertime conversations often revolved around topics like raw material shortages, supply chain issues, regulatory effects on the industry, VOC regulations and hazardous materials. I learned the business inside and out. In fact, the chemical industry has become my home for the last 32 years.

As a person that enjoys the outdoors, I’ve also been highly motivated to address issues related to the environment, something that perhaps seemed to some in direct conflict with the coatings industry, at least early in my career. I realised, however, that I could have a meaningful impact working in our family company, which had room for improvement, and eventually affecting the larger industry.

I took on sustainability goals by trying to increase waterborne technologies ahead of regulatory pressure, reduce plastic usage of our packaging materials and set policies to assure that 100% of our hazardous waste was used in fuel programmes. These are practices I have carried with me throughout my career. Through it all, I have come to understand just how interrelated sustainability is to two other initiatives that have become focal points, not just for me but for others in the coatings industry: investing in R&D and digitalisation.

After I left my dad’s company, my brother and I founded an inkjet company, and then in 2013, I founded a 3D printing materials company. The business model was to have a focus on data as the primary product and the result was to be material innovation. I wanted to run R&D more like operations. The catch was, that there was no software available to do so. That’s why we built Albert as an operating system for R&D. This software has since turned into the company Albert Invent.

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The big three

In Albert’s earliest days, we studied the websites and quarterly reports of the top 100 chemical and materials sciences companies in the world. It became clear that sustainability, R&D and digitalisation consistently claimed the top three spots for industry initiatives.

In terms of sustainability, companies are focusing on lowering their greenhouse gas emissions through driving efficiencies in the organisation, as well as focusing on products with less environmental impact, such as leveraging bio-derived raw materials, partnering with vendors that have strong sustainability initiatives, and inventing products that are more recyclable. They want to produce products that reduce the impact across the entire lifecycle of the product, generating less waste and using inventory wisely before expiration.

Why do they want to go this route? Aside from corporate responsibility, consumers are increasingly pushing for products with lower environmental impact. Today, many companies are driving innovation in sustainability above and beyond the regulatory requirements. These companies will have an advantage as sustainability regulations continue to become stricter. Developing and offering eco-friendly solutions is no longer just a good practice, but a business imperative.

When it comes to R&D, companies need better tools to speed innovation. This is because traditional processes are slow, manual and inefficient. Imagine how much faster product development and testing could be if every chemist could leverage all the company’s know-how since inception. Now, imagine if you could leverage all your vendors’ know-how as well. There is also a lot of room to drive operational efficiencies in the lab, including things like automated, compliant-ready SDS and labels, which can help get products out the door faster.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are poised to make a strong impact on the industry. AI will increasingly become a part of R&D, with tools analysing vast datasets to identify new formulations, predict product properties and give recommendations for new raw materials.

For digitalisation, companies need modern tools not only to assist with their R&D and operational goals, but also to attract talent. Many labs in the chemical and materials science industry are losing out on young scientists who opt for biotech or data science over chemistry. How does the materials science and chemical industry attract young talent? It’s not by handing them paper and laboratory notebook and taking them into an old-school lab, saying, “Go invent the next coating!” Young scientists want to walk into a modern ecosystem. They want to walk into a modern building. They want to invent a technology that is improving the world.

We have an opportunity to literally change the physical world to be more sustainable, safer and better all around through digitalisation. The physical world is out in front of us all. When you look around, your phone, your car, your house, for example, are each a materials science tech stack. Whether it’s the glass that is formulated not to fracture, the plastics, the silicone chips, the alloy metals, and the advanced coatings are all material science projects. It’s sitting inside of the hands of the formulators that create the world we live in. We have to make this exciting to the next generation while equipping them with the right tools to help them build.

Albert was designed to tie these big three priorities together. The platform makes it possible for organisations to manage their data and IP, to run experiments, to collaborate with other facilities, to do what’s best for the Earth and much more in a highly intuitive way.

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The time is now

From my initial research through building the Albert platform to where we are today, helping the most powerful labs in the world, I believe we have something important to offer. I see it in almost every meeting – the lightbulbs go off as leaders and scientists imagine a better way to develop products. Sometimes it’s just the simple ability to run a report on the status of their inventory. Sometimes it’s seeing what the highest strength of a material is that you’ve ever developed in your facility. Who created it? What was their mindset? Albert provides this kind of information so that scientists can collaborate about things like what materials they chose or gain insights that otherwise might have taken months or years. And just having access to data in a different way, whether it’s our Breakthrough AI assistant helping them find the next best formula or something far simpler.

We’re seeing the industry transition, and the opportunity is now. This moment demands a certain urgency to harness and leverage all the amazing data being generated daily; as it stands, this data gets lost in notebooks and Excel spreadsheets never to be seen again. The most valuable data that you have in your organisation is the data you didn’t collect today.

Moving forward, the company that has the most clean, unstructured data is going to have a huge advantage. So, if you’re a small company, get started. If you’re a mid-size company, get started. And if you’re a big company, you’re moving the fastest and will have the biggest storage of data to leverage, so get started.

Figure out the digital tools and processes that will help you fully utilise your data to accelerate innovation, attract the best talent, and create more sustainable products.

www.albertinvent.com

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