Exciting new uses for wood are part of a major project that draws together scientists, designers and ARU business academics under a new kind of business model – and which is helping bring about a sea change in Finland's forest industry.
One thing you can say about Finland – it has a lot of trees. 75% of the land is under forest, which is more extensive than other European country. Naturally forests not only have a profound spiritual meaning to the Finnish people, but a crucial economic one, the first paper mill being established in Turku in 1667. But today the paper industry is under threat due to a reduction in demand in our digitised world, and overproduction of paper in Europe and the USA.
'It's a bit like trying to save the mining industry in the UK,' says Dr Greg O'Shea, Senior Research Fellow at ARU's Institute for International Management Practice who is working as part of a team on new ways to re-invent this crucial industry.
The answer may be found in wood pulp, one of the simplest and most abundant of raw materials. One of three components of wood pulp is cellulose and is fast becoming known as a 'super-material'. It is not only very strong, but also lightweight. It's already used in a range of products, from cellophane to textiles, but these require chemical-heavy processes that use large amounts of water and energy.
In a ground-breaking project funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, Greg and colleagues from ARU are working alongside Aalto University School of Business and the University of Vaasa Faculty of Management, as well as Finnish scientists and designers. They are exploring greener ways of converting cellulose into brand new products, using a new type of business model.
'Our aim is to create an ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’ based around cellulose,' explains Greg. 'Unlike other models of a business ecosystem, where lots of small companies ‘feed’ a big company, we see this as a community of people working on an equal footing co-operative: like-minded scientists, academics, politicians, entrepreneurs and funders - which will evolve into a co-operative, vibrant business system.' He talks of the 'quadruple helix' of four sectors working together: academia, public sector, private sector and end users.
And Greg is well-placed to bring this about. He and his colleague Professor Teemu Kautonen have worked on two previous projects with ARU focussing on the emerging business concept of ‘open innovation’. This differs from the traditional business environment where SMEs are in competition with each other: here ideas, processes and information are shared freely, all with the aim of creating the most cutting-edge products and finding the best markets. He has pioneered this approach of building open and fluid transnational cooperation as a consultant with Finnish IT companies. 'That mind set has been crucial to this project,' Greg explains. 'Finland has a strong culture of collaborative working, and this project builds really well on that. It encourages a kind of ‘mucking-in together’ that can bring huge benefits.'
While the scientists work on ways to ‘play’ with cellulose – cook it, stretch it, fold it, weave it – and turn it into biodegradable and energy-efficient materials for the future, Finnish designers are being brought in to create new, advanced products from those materials. Finnish SMEs have already developed a natural, clean moulding material for children (similar to plasticine), and fully biodegradable, cellulose alternatives to retail plastic bags. Future products could include moulded boats made from cellulose instead of glass fibre, biodegradable textiles, and even a paint-like spray that can keep fire at bay or be washed off when no longer required.
'It’s an exciting challenge, looking at how we can develop market possibilities for products that are so ahead of their time,' says O’Shea. 'The materials are truly innovative, and now we want to design, make and sell innovative products and services. In the next couple of years the biggest impact will be the science – but by the time the project ends in 2018, there will be the beginnings of an innovative, sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystem, and the potential for further funding to look at practical commercialisation of the ideas.'
Once the project is completed Greg sees a big future for the university as a driver for such technology transitions in the Cambridge and Chelmsford areas, ones that build on this European success.
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