Degrees of success

How and why we work with universities around the world

Innovation is the spark that ignites our ability to turn great ideas into reality. It’s all about pushing boundaries and finding inventive ways to make a positive contribution to an ever-changing world.

But we can’t do it alone. Because innovation thrives on knowledge and ideas. And the better and wider the creativity and expertise, the better the outcome. That’s why we’ve been forging strong links with academia for decades.  

We’re currently involved in 66 collaborations worldwide, which includes working with around 50 universities (another 19 projects are currently under negotiation). They range from one-on-one relationships, to being part of major consortia. The overall aim, however, is essentially the same. All our academic partnerships are helping us to deliver the innovative and sustainable solutions that our customers, communities – and the planet – are increasingly relying on.

“Our track record of working closely with universities is a very long one,” explains Andre van Linden, AkzoNobel’s Director of Scientific Academic Partnerships, who has been with the company for nearly 40 years. “There can be quite a difference in the nature of the partnerships, but maintaining this mix is really important because they deliver different things. For example, we have many partnerships with customers and suppliers that focus on delivering a positive societal impact.”

As the person responsible for all the company’s academic partnerships, Andre operates at the nerve center of all these collaborations. And one of his key tasks is to ensure they tick all the right boxes.

“They have to align with one of our four innovation themes – productivity, asset protection, surface enhancement, environmental protection – and be strongly linked to our sustainability objectives. We’re also acutely aware that the paints and coatings industry can play a major role in decarbonizing other industries globally – which is a huge innovation challenge and as such will require an increasingly collaborative approach.”

The company’s involvement in various consortia includes the Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC) – the Netherlands’ national research center for circular and sustainable chemistry. It brings together representatives from industry, government and academia – specifically Eindhoven University of Technology, Utrecht University and the University of Groningen.

“At the ARC CBBC, we’re seeing some very interesting leads starting to emerge, such as the development of a more sustainable way of making resins,” continues Andre. “This particular project involves working alongside Nobel Prize laureate Ben Feringa. We’re also making good progress working with other researchers, for example on a new, recyclable coating to replace the type of ‘metallized’ packaging (which blocks out oxygen) that’s typically used for products such as crisps and coffee.”

The company is also part of SusCoRD (Sustainable Coatings by Rational Design), a partnership between the Universities of Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool, which is co-funded by AkzoNobel and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK. The multi-disciplinary project aims to develop the tools for creating new and improved protective coatings.

Meanwhile, in India, a one-on-one partnership has started to deliver promising results. Academics and students at NMIMS University in Mumbai have been working with scientists at our international research center in Bangalore. They’ve been developing new formulation technologies for us, based on A.I. It’s a unique opportunity for us to work together on using the latest A.I. technologies to help solve color-matching challenges in the vehicle refinish industry. The first algorithms are now being implemented into software that will support specialists in our color laboratories.

“It’s a very exciting and dynamic environment to work in and there’s certainly a lot to gain from the projects we’re involved in,” Andre continues. “They also want to learn from us, so it works both ways. And it’s particularly gratifying when academics you admire start taking photographs of your slides when you give presentations, because they want to use them to inspire their students!”

As for the future, certain issues are starting to command more and more attention. “Bio-based raw materials is certainly a hot topic, and we’re particularly interested in low temperature curing for automotive, coil and powder. Machine learning is also a keen area of discussion, as well as finding alternatives for better opacity in films. So I’m certainly going to be kept busy looking for more collaborations that will enable us to keep stretching boundaries in paints and coatings.”

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