ACE serves up new drive to accelerate sustainable growth

Multiple solar panels reflecting the fading winter sunlight at dusk, and glowing afterlight in the sky beyond, in the rural countryside of southern Britain.

Rooted in the north-east but global in perspective, we believe that the ACE initiative brings fresh thinking to big environmental challenges.

From making energy and water use much more efficient to achieving a decisive shift away from a throwaway society – delivery of a genuinely sustainable economy is a huge task. But the need to advance more rapidly towards this goal – not least in the context of tackling climate change – is ever more widely accepted.

Within its net zero strategy, the government is aiming to decarbonise the whole UK economy by 2050. But developing a circular economy fit for the future means breaking with ‘business as usual’ – something we have long believed at Procter & Gamble (P&G). This applies to the products industry manufactures, processes it applies and materials it harnesses – within which more than incremental improvements are needed.

This philosophy is the foundation of the Accelerating the Circular Economy (ACE) consortium – a cluster of activity spanning industry, academia and government across the north-east, spearheaded by colleagues at P&G.

Our Newcastle Innovation Centre, which opened over 60 years ago, is a longstanding strategic partner of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). With partnership and collaboration at its core, ACE seeks to speed up the pace of ‘green’ innovation.

Specifically, it aims to capitalise on and dovetail the different skills and perspectives of all involved to make the pathway from potentially game-changing research and development breakthroughs, such as biotechnology for consumer goods, to real-world commercial pull-through more connected, more coherent and faster than ever before.

Regional and wider ambitions

Through ACE, we are starting to unleash the huge potential for the north-east to become a leader and test bed in this space, and to generate hundreds of high-value jobs in the process. Crucially, our proximity to our trusted partners will aid knowledge exchange and the use of shared resources.

As our network expands and evolves, we hope to reach out across multiple sectors, turn promising innovations into practical, greener consumer products and industrial processes that aim to perform even better than current options, and accelerate sustainability regionally, nationally and globally.

We are pleased to be working closely with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of this – uniting the clear tie-in between ACE and its own focus on building a greener future. ACE will also contribute to its strategic objectives relating to ideas, innovation, impacts, places and people and careers.

UKRI does more than just provide public funding – their involvement enables us to tap into their vast experience in facilitating effective collaboration. Moreover, their support delivers the credibility that’s key to organisations deciding to commit to ACE.

We’re proud to be working with organisations including EPSRC, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Innovate UK as part of UKRI, who are all providing support for new or existing initiatives embraced under the ACE umbrella.

Demonstrating the opportunity

Through ACE, we – along with the North of Tyne Combined Authority and other critical project partners – recently co-funded a £2.7 million, 18-month ACE demonstrator. This successful project, which ended in early 2022, brought together a broad spectrum of regional expertise in a unified consortium, after road-testing the kind of approach that the full-scale ACE initiative can adopt.

Adopting this collaborative approach highlighted the viability of transforming the north-east into a focal point in the urgent push to embed sustainability across industry and across society more widely – something we are passionate about elevating in the minds of the scientific community.

New, highly skilled jobs were created through the demonstrator, which prioritised the development of innovative biotechnologies designed to boost the sustainability and performance of greener consumer goods and more water-efficient products.

We also interacted with over 4,000 students – demonstrating the potential to promote the skills agenda in science, technology, engineering and maths in order to dramatically strengthen the region’s ‘green skills’ base.

The project fed directly into the new Bioscience for Sustainable Consumer Products (BiSCoP) initiative, a Collaborative Training Partnership joint-funded by P&G and BBSRC. Involving universities and businesses across the region, BiSCoP will provide dozens of doctoral students with the expertise they need to forge careers in leading-edge bioscience and to translate research into tangible economic and societal benefits.

The broad spectrum of regional expertise included:

  • P&G
  • the North of Tyne Combined Authority
  • the North East Local Enterprise Partnership
  • Newcastle University
  • Northumbria University
  • the Centre for Process Innovation
  • Prozomix Ltd
  • the Innovation SuperNetwork

Partnership and prosperity

ANTENNA is another significant initiative aligned with ACE. Established under EPSRC’s flagship Prosperity Partnerships scheme, the £5.6 million programme has a major footprint in the north-east.

We are investing in a key collaboration with our partners at both Durham University and Imperial College London to produce new computer modelling and experimental tools, delivering fresh insights into chemical structures and their behaviour, and advanced tools for predictive cleaning in a world of resource scarcity.

Professor Mark Wilson of Durham said:

The aim is to tie pure science at the universities very closely to real-world industrial challenges, that will ensure the breakthroughs we make are much more easily transferable to an industrial setting and can move towards commercialisation a lot faster.

Outcomes will include washing machine and dishwasher detergents which clean at lower temperatures, saving energy and using less water, while improving effectiveness.

While the partnership is still in its very early stages, we are already achieving impact, with colleagues at P&G using one newly developed technique to investigate challenges linked to water-oil interfaces.

Fundamental scientific advances of this kind generated by the initiative will ultimately benefit companies large and small in the north-east and beyond, in sectors ranging from health to the offshore industry.

Unity in diversity

A key strength of ACE is its wide reach in terms of the different challenges it is addressing. For example, we worked with our partners on the £5.1 million FairWater project led by Northumbrian Water Group. This is developing interventions to provide accessible options for all households to transition to sustainable and efficient water and energy use.

While ACE comprises a diverse group of corporates, small and medium-sized enterprises, universities and Catapults, it has a single, clear mission. Underlying its immediate suite of activities is a determination to unleash the power of the north-east to deliver a pipeline of globally relevant sustainable solutions.

That will involve establishing a dynamic Open Innovation Hub in the region focusing on circular economy challenges and opportunities. For us, working with UKRI and its component councils, and with regional and national authorities, will be a critical element in making that vision come true.

Top image:  Credit: Neil Bussey, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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