Head of Digital R&D at Covestro
Torsten Heinemann, Head of Digital Research and Development (R&D) at Covestro, explains how computational chemistry and big data are driving innovative technical services and strengthening customer partnerships for a digitalized future.
What innovation initiatives are you currently working on for PUR (polyurethanes) and where do computational chemistry and big data come in?
One of the most pressing issues of our time is what happens to products at the end of their usage. That’s why we’re delighted to participate in PUReSmart, an EU-funded research project to boost recycling of PUR flexible foam. We aim to recover 90% of the originally used raw materials. The goal is to develop a complete circular product lifecycle. For me, this ambition perfectly sums up our ambition to marry innovation with sustainability and to embed this into every initiative we undertake, including in commodity markets. We’re also excited to partner with 8 other academic institutions and companies – by driving innovation together, everyone benefits.
Moreover, computational chemistry and big data play an important role in supporting projects like these since they enable more innovation at a faster speed, helping us to find new solutions to key issues like end-of-life solutions.
How does our history in classical chemical research prepare us for a digitalized future?
We’ve gathered significant technical know-how over the years. Thanks to our excellent chemists and technicians and a long-standing focus on structured data collection and analysis, we can now explore new ways to take a rather traditional industry into a fast-moving, ever-changing 21st century. In customer partnerships too, digital services are part of our offering. We’ve been offering digital technical services and production optimization since the early 1990s – that’s already 25 years of digital cooperation.
What role does computational chemistry play in our innovation initiatives?
Computational chemistry is hugely exciting both for us and our customers, since it opens up entirely new research methods that didn’t exist just a few years ago and that have the potential to boost our creativity. Computational chemistry enables us to identify and screen more new chemical structures at a faster rate than ever before. These are structures that we wouldn’t have found otherwise, and which we can then test in a virtual environment, saving both time and costs. We call this the “10X10 principle”: we can screen 10 more substances, 10 times faster.
How can we use data to boost innovation?
Data generation and usage applied in the right way offers huge potential. For example, pattern recognition in data sets obtained from sensors in production plants can be levered to increase productivity both at our own production sites and those of our customers. In that context, data security is of the utmost importance, so protecting customer know-how when gathering data is always a must.
How can the innovation we develop here bring added value to our customers?
The combination of computational chemistry and data science enables us to help customers optimize their production. This not only saves time and money while reducing waste, but also allows us to provide individualized expertise tailored to each customer’s exact needs. More and more customers are reaching out to us for technical support, and we hope to see this number increase as we explore more digital solutions to drive growth together.
Why is investing in innovation so crucial?
From a PUR perspective, innovation is key. We still see huge potential for all our core markets where innovative ideas and committed investment in end-of-life solutions can make a difference within our own industry and beyond. Providing state-of-the-art solutions for our customers is also a must, developing new ways to generate value across the supply chain. Finally, as a global leader in chemistry-based solutions with a mission to make the world a brighter place, it’s our responsibility to provide new solutions to global challenges like climate change or urbanization. In the broadest sense, it’s innovation that makes the world go round: for us, our customers and the planet we live in.