Finding the Right Chemistry: Investing in the Future of Advanced Materials


Like Gorilla Glass for smartphones, the application of Advanced Materials has the potential to revolutionize products, and this is driving an increasing level of interest in finding, experimenting with, and designing from the next generation of Advanced Materials.

The pace of innovation and investment is staggering, as is the variety of options and continuous evolution of materials that can make smartphones stronger, airplanes lighter, car parts more efficient, building materials more affordable, roads less prone to damage, and so much more.

It seems impossible to keep track of this growing market, especially given the incentives to find materials that cause less harm to the environment (carbon net-neutral) and can transform plastics and other materials that traditionally end up in landfills into high-quality materials.

Advanced Materials are revolutionizing the things that are built, and product R&D and engineering teams have heightened awareness as competitors suddenly launch new materials or applications that open new revenue opportunities, addressing unmet customer needs, align with environmental and regulatory requirements, and do so more profitably than ever.

Differentiation can be achieved from the molecular level and up as new materials utilize the chemical compound structures and other properties to improve product performance, durability and improve manufacturing yields and overall quality,

Tina Tosukhowong, Senior Director at GC Ventures America, contributed to the Advanced Material panel as part of The Frontier Conference this week, lending her insights into the Applications, Trends, and the Future of Advanced Materials.

GC Ventures America is the corporate ventures arm of PTT Global Chemicals (GC), a global petrochemical and material company.

“We’ve been looking at the intersection of new hard tech/ deep tech that help solves customers’ and the world’s pressing issues, such as climate tech, circular economy, high-performance, and light-weighting materials, and more,” Tosukhowong said.

“In the past century, the chemical industry has been expanding rapidly and making all kinds of products that we use every day from fossil fuel feedstocks,” Tosukhowong continued. “Materials, such as polymers and plastics, are essential for quality of life and safety. We use them as packaging to preserve our food, as piping to provide clean water to our household, as insulation to keep us warm and energy-efficient, just to name a few examples. What is extremely exciting in the material industry is that with technological advancement in the past decade and strong consumer acceptance, we now have a way to incorporate sustainability concept into new material design and development.”

Tosukhowong shared the story of Natureworks, a GC subsidiary based in Minnesota that has been making PLA bio-degradable polymer from the fermentation of sugar.

“I think they are one of the first and a very powerful example of how biotechnology can transform material manufacturing process to be sustainable,” Tosukhowong explained. “They start from sugar and get made into polymers for films, bags, nonwoven fibers, 3D printing filaments, etc. At the end of life, you can turn them into compost in an industrial facility, and they go back to nature. And today, we have hundreds of hard tech companies working to create newer and better, and more sustainable materials. Some even turn CO2 into new products! Of course, there will be a lot of challenges ahead to scale up hard technologies like these, but you also see a lot of venture funding and consumer demand going into this space. This is an exciting time to be innovators and investors in hard tech space.”

“We focus on advanced materials, digital platforms, biotech, and life science and clean technology,” Tosukhowong said, noting that the potential for R&D and engineering advancements to make an impact is limitless. “From 3-D printers that enable small production runs of personalized products to large scale manufacturing with lighter, stronger and more corrosion resistant products, we can drive enterprise value while also making a sustainable difference in the environment and healthy living.”

Companies focus on and invest in the development of advanced materials and applications for many reasons. Here are a few examples:

  1. Reduced costs and increased profitability when lighter and more durable materials lead to products that will last longer and save money on replacing parts or can solve for traditional manufacturing challenges
  2. Increased customer satisfaction and loyalty when the final products are less defective and more functional than has been historically possible
  3. Regulatory compliance and sustainability when the advanced materials manufacturers adopt enable them to comply with regulations without sacrificing performance objectives.

With the expected approvals of parts of the economic recovery packages that are following the global pandemic, which deeply impacted business, the panel concurred that the successful synthesis, use, and commercialization of advanced materials will allow businesses to tackle the greatest challenges while creating jobs for skilled workers.

On a global scale, substantial evidence in recent years shows that both public and private organizations are willing to invest in Advanced Materials.

For example, in 2013, the Graphene Flagship, the EU’s largest research initiative in history, launched with a budget of 1 billion euros. The initiative continues to bring together academic and industrial researchers to take graphene out of the labs and into the world, with all the related benefits.

In October 2014, the graphene movement received further when the Obama Administration announced a $300 million investment in emerging technology. (Much of this funding went to the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Agriculture, along with NASA, to invest in bio-based materials, advanced sensors, and digital manufacturing).

Since then, while there are still operational hurdles, extensions including smarter data analytics and growing knowledge bases are making it easier for R&D and engineering teams to move with less confusion and risk and making intelligent business models more credible, which is making investment more attractive.

“Advanced Materials is proving to be a key driver within the cleantech sectors, with the dual benefit of supporting sustainable practices, while also reducing the overall costs associated with more traditional methods,” Tosukhowong noted.

What do potential investors need to know?

“Navigating the landscape requires both a technical understanding of material properties and applications, as well as a business perspective including R&D, quality control, bill of materials, talent in R&D and engineering as well as sales and business development,” Tosukhowong said.

Venture Capital, Private Equity, Merchant Banking, and other financial firms are all actively moving in the space. Some firms are solely focused on Advanced Materials. Others, such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), invest in advanced materials as part of a broader innovation strategy. Dow Chemical and BASF have set up their own venture funds to identify and profit by working with entrepreneurs.

“Events like the Frontier Conference are one of the best ways to discover and engage with those who are as passionate about the potential of Advanced Materials,” Tosukhowong said.

Arti Loftus is an experienced Information Technology specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the research, writing, and editing industry with many published articles under her belt.

Edited by Erik Linask
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