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Innovation and commercialisation within formulation science

Formulation event

SCI’s Formulation Forum hosted a workshop on 21–22 January 2020, exploring innovation and commercialisation in formulation science.

Susanna Richmond, University of Edinburgh

The nature of formulation science – mixing components that do not react but combine to provide a final product with desirable properties – means it is ubiquitous across many industrial sectors. Since its inception in 2016, SCI’s Formulation Forum has built a community of formulators from academia and industry to provide a focused space for discussion of pertinent topics within the formulation sphere in a non-competitive environment.

(Image: Formulation Forum’s Chair, Malcolm Faers presenting the annual Formulation Forum award to Dr Paul O’Hora, Lubrizol, on behalf or Professor Steven Armes)

Following successful events in 2018 and 2019, 2020’s theme was ‘From Science to Shelf: Innovating through Formulation’. Innovation was examined at various stages, from academic research and start-ups through to large multinationals, to explore commercialisation routes for formulation science.

Stories from academia

Scott Bush, Co-Founder of Plastech Innovation, winner of 2019’s Bright SCIdea, described how a two-week business school he and his co-founders attended while completing their PhDs inspired them to start their company. By taking undesirable mixed and low-grade plastic waste and recycling it into an aggregate material, Plastech will provide an eco-friendly alternative for the 50 billion tonnes of sand that is used by the construction industry every year.

Continuing the environmental theme, Professor Daniel Bonn, University of Amsterdam, spoke about his research on droplet formation and how this led to him to found Green A, which produces a biodegradable additive that improves the effectiveness of pesticide sprays.

Demonstrating that innovation is happening throughout the academic life cycle, these talks highlighted the crucial role formulation science has to play in the growing need for new, green solutions for current commercial products. The importance of identifying market needs in this way during the commercialisation process was reiterated throughout the workshop.

A small company perspective

William Weaver, Technical Director, Applied Graphene Materials (AGM), gave an insight into the challenges of innovating in an emerging industry. Graphene, a 2D material consisting of a single layer of graphite, was isolated by researchers in 2004 and its impressive strength along with superior electrical- and heat-conducting properties drew immediate interest from industry formulators. However, graphene was being manufactured via a variety of routes, leading to final substances with differing characteristics. This posed a real difficulty for formulators wishing to use graphene.

AGM recognised this problem at an early stage and developed in-house ‘starter’ graphene formulations to give customers reference data to help incorporate graphene into their own products. They also ensured they were closely involved with the developing Regulatory and Health and Safety Executive environment surrounding graphene to make certain that their products met any new controls that were introduced. This latter point was emphasised by David Skuse, Vice President of Technology, FiberLean Technologies Limited, who advised that companies should not underestimate the cost, time, and effort needed to ensure a new commercial product is safe and complies with legislation.

Innovation in industry

Darren Budd, Commercial Director, BASF Plc, touched on the benefits start-ups and multinationals can offer each other when partnering to commercialise an innovative technology or product but also the difficulties they can face during this process. He highlighted the different internal timelines that are often at play and counselled that start-ups should give careful consideration to the type of collaboration they pursue, with equity investment, joint development agreements, and licensing agreements each having their own pros and cons.  

Dr Nicole Kolmer-Anderl, Kronos, spoke about her company’s adoption of the Stage-Gate® process to guide innovations in product development. This is a project management technique that splits a project into phases, each separated by decision points or “gates”; at each gate, a manager or steering committee will decide whether to continue. Contrastingly, Dr Kathryn Knight, Research & Technology Manager, Crop Care at Croda, described how Croda has no set innovation process, and collaborate with customers and universities under a variety of models to create innovative techniques and new formulations for their crop protection portfolio. However, a common thread was the importance of building a trusted team with a variety of skills and experiences in order to translate fresh ideas into a commercial reality.

Formulation Forum award

Delegates at the event also voted for the annual Formulation Forum award, which recognises recent innovations in formulation and formulation science. The 2020 award was won by Professor Steve Armes, University of Sheffield, and colleagues for their work on developing new nanoparticle lubricants for engine oils. These will improve fuel economy as well as reducing engine CO2 emissions and long-term engine wear. Professor Armes commented: ‘My co-workers and I are absolutely delighted to receive this 2020 SCI Innovation in Formulation Award. It is the cumulation of eight years' hard work between my research group at the University of Sheffield and a dedicated team of scientists at The Lubrizol Corporation. We believe that the new block copolymer nanoparticles developed by Lubrizol as a direct result of our joint fundamental research programme should enable the cost-effective formulation of next-generation ultralow viscosity automotive engine oils.’

‘Extensive engine rig tests and road trials conducted at Lubrizol have demonstrated that such engine oils enable greater fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions to be achieved, as well as reduced long-term engine wear. Given Lubrizol's global reach in the engine oil additives market, a significant improvement in air quality is anticipated over the coming years.’

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