Interview with Robin Kolvenbach about innovation and sustainability at Heraeus

Innovations drive progress - but they also pose challenges. In the new Heraeus Innovation Experts series, Heraeus talks to innovation experts about current trends and their impact on companies. Today's topic: How sustainable innovations meet customer expectations.

More and more companies are being driven by the question of how they can combine profitability with a carbon footprint approaching zero in the future. The key to this is sustainable innovation, which can be achieved through certain methods and new approaches such as design thinking. The Heraeus Precious Metals Global Business Unit, for example, has used this to develop ideas for 100 percent recycled precious metals that will make it much easier for the chemical industry to achieve its climate targets in the future. In the video interview, Robin Kolvenbach, Head of Innovation Chemicals at Heraeus Precious Metals, explains how the company proceeds in order to identify the sustainability needs of its customers at an early stage and to realize business opportunities.

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Hello Robin,

Hi Sofie,

Thank you for taking the time today to talk about innovation and sustainability.

Gladly, of course,

You are Head of Innovation at Heraeus Precious Metals Chemicals, What would you say, what methods do you and your team use in the innovation process?

You're welcome Sofie. I think we need to distinguish between two types of innovation. One is evolutionary innovation and the other is disruptive innovation. There is a very clear difference between the methods.

In evolutionary innovation, there are basically two points: first, a strongly customer-driven innovation. This means that a customer approaches us with a specific requirement and we modify the existing technology or the existing products in such a way that it meets the customer's needs.

The second part of evolutionary innovation is production improvements. This usually comes to us directly from the factory. We improve the process, make it more sustainable, more cost-efficient, more energy-efficient, and then return the process improvement accordingly.

The third part is, as I said, disruptive innovation. Here, you have to proceed in a completely different way. In principle, you have to take people from different areas - sales, production, quality - out of their usual working environments in order to get the ideas they have in their heads for completely new customer needs, or rather to satisfy customer needs, out of them, and it's not so much about whether we already have the technology or not. In principle, it's first about what the customer's needs are and how we can satisfy them.

And that's where we primarily use methods like design thinking to generate new ideas from scratch.

Keyword Design Think, what was your last project and what were the results?

Most recently, we dealt with the topic of sustainability in the design thinking process and tried to see how we, who have the same problem as all our market competitors, namely that we have to try to be profitable on the one hand, but on the other hand also to bring our carbon footprint in particular towards zero as quickly as possible. How we can get this right and at the same time support their customers in their, shall we say, ambitious climate plans.

The result was eight value propositions that basically address the customer need to reduce the carbon footprint. In a second step, we tested them with our customers - we conducted around 50 customer interviews. We then extracted two value propositions from them. These were, on the one hand, the offer of 100 percent sustainable, for example recycled precious metals, with a significantly lower carbon footprint. And on the other hand, products, for example chemicals, precursor materials, catalysts, that are manufactured from these one hundred percent recycled precious metals.

You've already talked about customer meetings. How do you specifically incorporate external feedback and customer voices into your innovation process?

We try to do that as early as possible. We have to distinguish here between, let's say, services and non-technical offerings, where I think you can conduct customer interviews very early on, and technical offerings, where I think you first and foremost have to have at least a proof of concept that the idea you have really works before you collect customer feedback.

One of the specialties in our field is that we have to conduct a large number of customer interviews. We have about 20 segments that we serve, where the value creation functions very differently and the offers that we make to our customers have to be adapted to this value creation, and in this case, for example, we are now conducting more than 50 customer interviews in order to cover the entire range of our customer base.

What did you learn about your customers' sustainability drivers and needs?

We have learned that the main issue for all our customers is the carbon footprint - that is, CO2 emissions.

They all actually have pretty ambitious climate plans - they all want to become climate neutral in the next two to three decades.

That's a big challenge for most of the customers who are, after all, very energy-intensive - the chemical industry, which we mainly serve, which is very energy-intensive.

Accordingly, they face great challenges, which we want to help solve with our precious metals from recycled sources.

What business opportunities have you been able to identify specifically in terms of sustainability in these projects?

As I said, it's about precious metals that come specifically only from recycled sources - so not from the mine - but only from sources where they've been used before. This can reduce the carbon footprint by about 95 percent or more.

Which has a big impact on our customers' footprint, it's called Scope-3, so it's not the direct emissions but the indirect emissions, where we can still help our customers very much by offering the metals or their products that are made from them.

Turning from the specific project to the topic of sustainability in general, what role does sustainability play in your innovation process?

I would say we no longer do innovation projects that don't reflect some kind of sustainability aspect, usually measured by the SDGs from the UN.

Most of what we do somehow leads to more efficient processes for us or for our customers - in other words, ultimately to less CO2 being emitted.

However, we also address the issue of hunger by producing catalysts to effectively produce fertilizer, which can ultimately combat world hunger.

What would you say is your assessment or vision. How can Heraeus Precious Metals Chemicals achieve sustainability across the ecosystem?

My vision would be for Heraeus Precious Metals to become the driver for sustainability in our business environment - both with our customers but also upstream at the mines. So that we manage to reduce the overall carbon footprint in our industry and drive it towards zero - as quickly as possible.

Thanks for the interview Robin!

Thank you Sofie.