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Chemical industry innovation Q&A with Karin Walczyk

Karin Walczyk, Global Chemicals Research Lead & Resources Innovation Lead, offers inspiring insights about chemicals.
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Watching the chemical industry for more than 15 years now, what do you think are the most significant changes over the past two decades?
The industry has changed dramatically since the time I began studying chemistry. The United States, Germany and Japan used to be the leading chemical nations, represented by their large global players. Nowadays companies from China and the Middle East make it into the top ten list.

Furthermore, investors started to discover the chemical industry, actively driving consolidation so that some historic names have simply disappeared while new players have entered the scene. Also, chemicals used to be a highly traditional industry, but the increasing volatility and pace of change over the past decade means that traditional thinking is no longer the path to success in a competitive global market.

Describe the “Innovation Benchmarker” patent analysis tool that you built for Accenture Research.
Innovation is a hot topic for chemicals. Public sources only provide the research and development (R&D) spend of a company, which gives insights about the R&D intensity of a business but not its innovation pipeline or success. To gain more information about innovative technologies or hot research topics, patent analysis is a useful tool.

Our Innovation Benchmarker can measure the quality of patents and monitor emerging competitors. We can watch burgeoning technologies and see who’s most active in a specific technology field. The pure number of patents is less meaningful since it is mainly pushed for marketing and strategic reasons. Rather, the key performance indicators (KPIs) we monitor with the Innovation Benchmarker focus on the quality, trends and technology behind the raw number of patents.

What clients and projects are requesting this type of innovation research?
The innovation research is relevant for any company that wants to transform and optimize its R&D process. Accenture can do a baseline study on R&D initiatives in order to see how effective and competitive a company is compared to its peers. We often support merger and acquisition (M&A) activities by mapping patent portfolios to find synergies of a good patent match. With innovation proving to be a key source of competitive advantage in chemicals as well as other industries, we see huge potential in leveraging this research.

Based on your research, do you see new innovation patterns in the chemical industry?
One significant new pattern that should not be overlooked is the power of Chinese innovation. China has historically been regarded as a low cost producer, however, China is definitely ramping up on the innovation front. Pushed by the Chinese government, the number of patents has exploded in the past decade. Thus, it is only a matter of time until the gap closes between the share of patents granted in China as compared to the United States and Europe.

Another pattern we see is innovation around water treatment is a major area of focus. This aligns with the global challenge of managing water scarcity. China has filed by far the most patents today around water treatment, which will likely result in a huge competitive advantage.

You have a PhD in Chemicals. Why are chemicals so special to you?
I am fascinated by chemicals because they are part of everyone’s daily life. Whatever we work with, whatever we use—there is chemistry inside. Most people don’t realize that new products like smart phones can only exist because chemicals support electronic miniaturization as well as flexible displays, materials and adhesives. Other technologies like isolation materials, solar technology materials and even 3D printing also depend on customized chemical materials.

Tell us about your love of gardening.
Working in the garden frees my mind and helps me slow down, allowing me to return to my work with a fresh point of view. I’m very excited about the digitalization initiatives now underway in my garden. Automated watering equipment has been installed and plans for a lawnmower robot are in discussion. I am still waiting for a weed robot, which would be a really great invention for all avid gardeners!