Friday 21 June 2019

"From Plants to Bio-Based Products" Motivation and Mutual Learning Workshop in Aberystwyth

Jane Lambert

Last Wednesday I attended a workshop in the William Davies Hall at the Institute of  Biological, Environmental & Rural Sciences ("IBERS") of Aberystwyth University. The theme of the workshop was "From Plants to Bio-Based Products The Challenges to and Opportunities for Development and Scale-up in Wales." The event was hosted by Beacon Biorefining in association with Minerva Communications Ltd and the Biovoices consortium. Over 50 stakeholders participated in the event representing the Welsh government, the universities, the professions and various sectors of Welsh agriculture and industry.

The attendees were seated on a number of tables each with its own moderator and rapporteurs.  Each table was asked to discuss four topics:
  • Challenges - What are the issues preventing progression and development of bio-based sectors and products in Wales?
  • Opportunities - What are the opportunities for the development of bio-based sectors and products in Wales?
  • Success Stories - UK companies and industrial approaches to develop the bioeconomy that have reached higher TRL levels and market acceleration, and
  • How to progress the Welsh bio-based sector? Top level points to share.
Each topic was introduced by one or more short presentations.  Prof. Iain Donnison, the director of IBERS welcomed the audience and set out the aims of the workshop. Speakers from Aber instruments, Beacon and other companies introduced their businesses and the work that they do. Those speeches showed the breadth of the bio-economy in Wales. Rob Elias of Beacon spoke of the business opportunities provided by the bio-economy while Ian Holmes of Innovate UK spoke of the funding opportunities. Joe Gallagher, head of industrial biotechnology at IBERS, spoke about some of the industrial projects in this sector from British Sugar's plant at Wissington to even more impressive installations in China and the USA.

As the only intellectual property specialist in the room I stressed the importance of protecting investment in technology, branding and design. One of the challenges affecting the bio-sector as much as the rest of the economy is that EU trade marks and Community designs and plant varieties will cease to apply to the UK if the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement on 31 Oct 2019. At the very least, holders of EU trade marks, registered Community designs and plant varieties will have to register national trade marks, designs and plant varieties. Separate proceedings will be necessary in the UK and EU if any of those IP rights is infringed simultaneously here and in one or more EU member states.

When asked what message the sector should give to the new prime minister, I suggested that the new government should think yet again about how to reduce the risks and costs of obtaining and enforcing IP protection, particularly if the UK has to withdraw from the Unified Patent Court and the unitary patent. Finally, I added that the food and farming sectors will have to get used to a national scheme for protecting designations of origin and will have to reacquaint themselves with national plant variety protection.

On a general level, there was a lot of enthusiasm for clusters. I argued that clusters required more than geographical proximity and that they have to be based on natural affinity rather than the wishes of civil servants. I pointed to clusters in the UK that worked such as Silicon Roundabout in London and the Cambridge Cluster. Those were more than a few university spin-offs and start-ups who happened to be in the same area. They were a community of entrepreneurs, angels, private equity and specialist financial and professional services sharing similar aspirations and a common enterprise culture.

I have detected signs of that happening - albeit on a very small scale - around Bangor with the Menai Science Park and the Pontio Arts and Innovation Centre. I had learned about some remarkable business successes in that region such as Halen Môn. The proprietors of that enterprise had diversified from running a sea zoo as a tourist attraction to extracting salt from seawater, creating entirely new products like smoky water. In a sense, their enterprise had moved full circle as they were attracting tourists to their extraction facility.  I suggested that something similar might be happening around Aberystwyth and other regions of Wales.

Anyone wishing to discuss this article or the issues mentioned in it should call me on 020 7404 5252 during office hours or send me a message through my contact form.

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