Dr. Marijn Dekkers: Chemicals and pharmaceuticals are the key industries of the 21st century

We are living in an era of profound tran­­sition that is being shaped not only by dramatic events such as the financial and economic crisis but also by powerful long-term developments. These so-called megatrends are driving change and exer­­ting ever greater pressure on us to take action. They include, for example, climate change and the increasing scar­­city of re­­­sources; demographic change and the growing world population; urban­­isation and constantly expanding traffic volumes.

We need industry’s expertise and know-how if we are to master the challenges associated with these megatrends. In this context, the chemical and pharma­ceutical sectors play key roles: the chem­­­ical sector as the hub supplying pro­­d­­ucts for innumerable appli­­cations and the pharmaceutical sector because it is addressing the issue of health care for aging and growing societies. In both the chemical and pharmaceutical indus­­­­tries, innovation is more a part of day-to-day business than in al­­most any other sec­­tor. For example, with a figure of 81 per­­­ cent in 2010, these industries in Germany ranked highest in terms of the num­ber of com­­panies which success­­fully established new prod­­ucts and pro­­ces­­­­ses. This shows that the chemical and pharmaceutical industries are some­­­thing like the nerve centre of Germany’s innovation system.

2011-0096-1-Kopie

Bayer tests the production of plastics using carbon dioxide.

Bayer is one of the best examples of this with a research budg­­et of about three billion euros and more than 13,000 researchers worldwide, almost half of whom are based in Ger­­many. Working closely with uni­­ver­­sities, research institutes and partner enterprises, the com­­pany provides solutions to various problems and pools expertise relating to the main megatrends. Take demographic change, for ex­­am­­ple. The average life expectancy in Germany has increased by more than ten years since 1960 – a major achievement which is due not least to advances in medicine. At the same time, this has resulted in new challenges. As people get older, they are more likely to suffer from certain illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer. Even these very pre­­va­­lent diseases are often not adequa­­tely treatable, which is why they are the fo­­cus of Bayer’s research. One of the most interesting products to emerge from this is our anticoagulant Xarelto, which for some time has al­­ready been used following hip and knee surgery and is now also helping prevent strokes.

Discovered in Bayer’s research laboratories in Wuppertal, the product was honored in December 2009 with the German Future Prize awarded by the German Pre­sident. Xarelto is characterized by a novel mechanism of action and offers key benefits for both patients and physicians. For example, it is admin­­istered in tablet form and does not have to be injected like the current standard therapies. It is also not necessary to regularly test pa­­tients’ blood counts. That ultimately helps curb the increase in health care costs.

Whereas the population in industrialized countries is aging, it continues to grow rap­idly in developing and emerging coun­­tries. The United Nations estimates that the world population will exceed nine billion by 2050 – around two billion more than today. This raises the challenge of ensur­­ing adequate health care for everyone. Especially in developing and emerging countries, not all people have access to the necessary medicines and almost half the world’s population is at risk from tropical diseases. Bayer is seeking to help here, for exam­­ple by providing medicines for Cha­­gas disease and African sleeping sickness via the World Health Organization (WHO). These are life-threatening infec­tious diseases which are among the ne­­glected tropical diseases.

BCS-04

Over and above this, of course, it is necessary to ensure an adequate food supply for a growing world population. Already today, almost one billion people are suffering from hunger. However, there is little scope for increasing the amount of available agricultural land. Indeed, it is actually decreasing because soil is karstifying, megacities are proliferating and deserts are expanding as a result of climate change. This means that the available agricultural land per head is shrinking dramatically. It will take a massive in­­crease in agricultural productivity to pre­­vent a radical deterioration in the world’s food supply situation over the coming years.

This will not be possible without contri­­butions from science and research. We need innovative active substances which effectively protect crops from in­­sects, fungal diseases and weeds. We also need better plants with higher yields and grea­­ter resistance to stresses such as extre­mes of temperature or drou­ght. Bayer is working to achieve this using modern breeding techniques that in­­clude green genetic engineering.

BHC-10-Kopie

Given the dimensions of the chal­­lenge, it would be irresponsible not to make use of this innovative and safe technology. Moving on to the issue of climate change, global warming is without doubt one of the major challenges of our times. We have to find a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions without jeopardizing either growth or our modern standard of living – also in the developing and threshold coun­­tries. Industry is con­­tributing to solutions in this area too. For instance, the German chemical in­­dustry reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 47 per cent between 1990 and 2009, while simultaneously expanding production by 42 per cent.

At the same time, entirely new routes are being sought to deal with the harmful ex­­haust gas carbon dioxide. For example, it is now possible to use this substance as a raw material. Working together with energy company RWE and RWTH Aachen University, Bayer has developed a process which em­­ploys carbon dioxide to manufacture poly­­urethanes, high-performance polymers with applications in a wide range of everyday

products such as mattresses, shoes and soccer balls. At the start of 2011, a pilot plant came on stream at the Leverkusen site to trial the new process on a technical scale. One day, therefore, carbon dioxide might be an alternative to petroleum, which has until now been the chemical sector’s main source of the key element carbon.

06Agrogreen-Kopie

A newly developed biological agent is designed to shield crop plants from pest infestation. In the greenhouse, the effect is checked on cucumber seedlings

What’s more, chemical products are them­­selves helping to facilitate the transition toward the greater use of renewable and climate-friendly energies. With the aid of nanotechnology, it is possible to manufacture extremely stable materials which can improve the efficiency of wind turbines, for example. Lighter materials also enable the production of lighter vehicles, which helps save gas. A ten per cent reduction in car weight translates into five per cent less fuel consumption. It is not surprising there­­fore that the amount of plastics used in cars has tripled over the past 30 years. In Germany alone, that yields annual fuel savings totaling 500 million litres. Another example is found in construction. At the present time, buildings account for around 40 per cent of the world’s energy consump­tion and 30 per cent of carbon dioxide emis­­sions. Bayer has shown that it is possible to take a different approach with its Eco­Commercial Building Program, a network that brings together 50 partners in the design of climate-friendly and energy-optimised buildings. One aspect of this is the use of mo­­dern insulating materials, which greatly re­­duce the energy con­­sump­­­­tion of buildings. The world’s first Eco­Com­­mercial Building was the childcare facility inaugurated at the start of 2010 at Bayer’s Monheim site. This gen­­e­­rates more energy than it actually needs and in the first year of operation cut carbon dioxide by some 50 tons – equivalent to the average exhaust emissions of 27 cars. Al­­though it might seem like the proverbial drop in the ocean given that global carbon dioxide emissions total more than 30 billion tons each year, examples like this show what is possible and thus point the way forward. They are what mankind now needs most of all if it is to fulfill its respon­­sibility to future generations.

 

Dekkers-KopieThe author is CEO of Bayer AG. Dekkers studied chemistry and chemical engineer­­ing. After obtaining a doctorate, he worked for General Electric, then Allied Signal (later Honeywell International Inc.). In 2000, he became COO, then CEO and President of the laboratory equipment manufacturer Thermo Electron Corporation (later Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.) before joining the board of Bayer AG in 2010.