“We can only tackle climate change by working together”

Steffen Hasenzahl, Senior Vice President & Head of Creavis, on the company’s interdisciplinary approach to acting as a business incubator

Mr. Hasenzahl, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an unusually specific warning in February 2022: Almost half of humanity is acutely threatened by climate change. Is there still time to make a difference, or is it already too late for that?

Steffen Hasenzahl: The urgent warning by scientists on behalf of the United Nations was – understandably – overshadowed by the ongoing war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, we need to heed their words and act now. To me it seems, as if there are still many people who have not yet realized how serious the situation is.

You plan to tackle climate change with your team at Creavis?

The world is in bad shape. The global challenges we face demand new solutions and fresh ways of thinking. Issues we need to address include how to mitigate climate change and promote a climate-neutral economy. We need to figure out how we can feed a growing global population while enabling a healthy lifestyle in an intact environment. Moving away from linear value chains that cause enormous mountains of waste can help us greatly reduce our ecological footprint.

You mention global challenges. What exactly will Creavis be doing within Evonik?

Together with our colleagues from the operating units, we’re facing the current global challenges by pushing sustainable solutions for new markets and evolving value chains. One example is climate-neutral hydrogen. Driven by the need to massively reduce CO2 emissions, there is a new industry emerging here. Starting with the generation of electricity from wind or solar power, followed by the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen by means of electrolysis, and, finally, the technically demanding transport of hydrogen as well as its use in many areas that have previously been dominated by fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas. All these steps not only have to work on a large scale, but they also need to be affordable. Evonik, as a leading specialty chemicals company, is an enabler in this respect – its products and solutions help new technologies achieve their breakthrough.

How important is interdisciplinary cooperation for creating ideas and solutions that aim to make an ecological and economic contribution?

Interdisciplinary cooperation is nothing new in the chemical industry. Since we are usually at the beginning of a value chain,  such collaboration and cooperation very much key to solving major challenges. Creavis has been a strategic innovation unit within Evonik for over 20 years already, and we have always worked together with internal and external partners. To meet our challenges even more effectively, we have to think further outside the box and keep an eye on commercial viability right from the start.

What does that actually mean?

Creavis takes a cross-industry, interdisciplinary approach. We enter partnerships with universities, startups and industrial partners – ideally within an entire value chain or, even better, a value cycle. In addition, business development at Creavis is characterized by diversity, cooperation, and entrepreneurial spirit. Scientists and engineers work hand in hand with technicians, marketing specialists and business developers within Creavis and throughout the group. Everyone works toward the same goal: to develop new, commercially viable solutions with lasting benefits for society – solutions that generate real value.

How can new solutions and sustainable business models be established worldwide and across all industries? How can Creavis contribute?

All relevant industrial sectors must work together to achieve lasting change. Power generation and primary raw materials are at the beginning of every value chain. In the future, they need to be as climate neutral as possible. To enable a functioning circular economy, residues and waste materials must also be reused as raw materials. This is where the chemical industry will come in. It can help with the chemical recycling of plastics, the processing of used tires and the recovery of lithium salts from used lithium-ion batteries. This is only possible in the entire value chain, and we have to take a holistic look at it from a sustainability perspective. Creavis’ job is to identify and develop new business opportunities in newly evolving markets and value chains, to test them on the market, and to develop them in such a way that they are either taken over by an existing operating unit or become the nucleus for the establishment of a new business unit.

Sustainability is a balance of ecology, economy, and social issues ...

... it is, that’s why we need to always take all three aspects into account. We’ve positioned ourselves as a business incubator so that we don’t just look at a topic from a technical and scientific perspective; we also consider economic and regulatory issues. Ultimately, sustainable solutions need to be socially acceptable. We are, for example, looking into obtaining vegetable oils from plants that do not compete with food production, for which no forests need to be cleared, and which ideally grow in soil that cannot be used for other purposes.

Do you have a lot of internal persuading to do when it comes to getting people thinking and acting across company boundaries?

Not really. Evonik’s purpose, “Leading beyond chemistry to improve life, today and tomorrow,” is the guiding star for all of us. Leadership – as Evonik understands it – is about people, passion, enthusiasm, and inspiration. It’s about employees who get involved and help to make the world a better place by means of sustainable products. Employees, who are bold, who think of new ways to do things, and who, therefore, are also a true asset to our customers. At Creavis, we don’t do this alone in the often-cited ivory-tower, but in concert with other units at Evonik and external partners. For example, we work with recycling firms, electricity producers, and plastics manufacturers to cover these parts of the value chains.

What are your greatest challenges?

If I’m being very self-critical, I’d firstly say that we’re not going fast enough. There isn’t enough sense of urgency. We need to be much faster. Second, the different industries need to work together more closely to create new value chains and value cycles. This can only be done together. We already spoke about green hydrogen. At the very beginning, for example, you need the wind turbine manufacturer to generate affordable electricity, next up is the company that builds suitable electrolyzers. Later, we need capacity for transport by pipeline, truck, or ship, and units that can process the hydrogen – in the steel-producing industry, the chemical industry, and so on. The chemical industry offers the necessary raw materials for all these steps in the value chain, such as membranes, electrocatalysts, plastics, and seals. Everything has to work hand in hand.

Generally speaking, where are the different industries at today?

Sustainability is now an issue in every industry. The shift to a more sustainable economy and way of life has long begun. It will affect work, production, and supply processes in all industries without exception, and especially those in the chemical industry. It starts with the defossilization of production itself, i.e., substitutes for fossil fuels. Beyond that it’s about the environmental acceptability of our basic materials and products. This change is an immense challenge – and one that we want to and will actively help to address. To do so, we need reliable official policy objectives and conditions. This shows that we can only tackle climate change by working together.

Dr. Steffen Hasenzahl is an internationally experienced executive with a passion for people, business, and science. He has extensive experience in general management, product management, marketing, applied technology, as well as research and development.