Interview with Dr. Georg F.L. Wiessmeier


The "ALTANA Innovation Conference" is going to take place every year. Was the premiere in 2008 a successful event? What were the highlights of the conference?

The "ALTANA Innovation Conference" first took place in November 2008. Management Board and top management, research engineers and application specialists - altogether 100 participants from many countries in which ALTANA is active - traveled to Duisburg to attend the conference in the new Mercatorhall. We did not just exchange professional ideas over the two days but also extended our personal network. In the course of this, we held intensive discussions in presentations, workshops and poster sessions about new applications, technologies and ideas for new projects. In addition, we set up the ALTANA Innovation Award as an honor that we would confer for the first time as part of the ALTANA Innovation Conference this year.

What are the nomination criteria?

With the ALTANA Innovation Award we want to recognize internationally outstanding innovations within the group. Important criteria are that the recognized innovation should have already proven itself on the market and have generated initial sales. It is also important to us how the innovation has come about. We wish to encourage cross-divisional teamwork and factor in the origin and realization along the entire development chain, starting with the idea and proceeding right down to the product rollout and successful marketing. The innovation should be sustainable: It should help to improve the quality of life, while at the same time conserving the environment and safeguarding resources.

In Duisburg, you talked about a variety of topics such as new surfaces, polymer electronics, nanotechnology and the application of biotechnological processes in specialty chemistry. Where do you see main trends for the future? In which applications do you expect these technologies to ignite or accelerate future progress? Can you give us some examples of products containing ALTANA's specialty chemicals we might see in 5 or 10 years?

ALTANA is in a good starting position for all the major growth areas of the future, such as information and communication technology, consumer goods for an improved quality of life, safety technologies, mobility / transport, energy, climatic impact, alternative raw material sources, environmental protection and resource conservation. Which is why we are very confident that we will be able to make a substantial contribution to the growth of our company in future through innovations.

A good example of a new key technology for which a new market will open in future is, no doubt, polymer electronics or organic electronics, where electronic circuits, components or complete electronic units are produced using low-cost printing processes. Possible applications into which our technical solutions might be incorporated could be, for example, flexible displays, sensors, MP3 players, integrated in clothing, or RFID chips, printed on packaging. Therefore, we are evaluating business opportunities within this area. Japan, Korea and Taiwan will no doubt play a pioneering role where applications are concerned. That is why our market experts in these countries in particular must discuss these future issues with our customers, over and above day-to-day business.

As referring to key enabeling technologies like nanotechnology or as you mentioned industrial biotechnology, we are continuously evaluating new technologies just to offer the most efficient way to resolve technical requirements of our customers.

ALTANA's investments in research and development are almost twice as high as the average in the chemicals industry. How does this investment pay off?

We essentially provide our customers with very sophisticated technical solutions for their products. The concern is not simply to sell specialty chemicals. Since we are also active in highly specialized niche markets and can claim to be the market leader here, our business is very innovation-driven and requires extensive and above-average commitment to research and development with a disproportionate number of qualified experts in all our fields of activity. This is particularly true in economically difficult times.

What is your strategy to define and fund R&D projects? What are ALTANA's main areas of research?

Our research is geared toward current and future customer requirements. We talk here about "market pull". A new "product idea" goes through the classic innovation process, in which our market experts are also included from the outset. Key points of the innovation process are the evaluation of the product idea and the business model behind it, and the assessment of the future market potential, by innovation teams. To establish a new product on the market as an innovation, it is equally important to make use of the relevant key technology. Here we talk in terms of "technology push". Key technologies like nanotechnology or maybe also industrial/white biotechnology therefore play a vital role for us if we are to offer the most profitable solutions to our customers in future, too. It is also very important that we concern ourselves more with future markets and the needs of our customers that accrue from these. Our research projects therefore need to be geared to a certain degree toward a time horizon of over five years. Since these projects are accompanied by a higher level of risk, we have created the ALTANA R&D Fund. Not only this fund enables us to support cross-divisional projects with higher risks so we can fully exploit the available synergy potential. The main focus of our research activities is on additives, specialty coatings and adhesives, effect pigments, sealants and compounds, impregnating agents, and testing and measuring instruments. In addition, a crucial aspect of the R&D strategy for me is that the existing core competences should be sensibly expanded, so that we are also in the position to develop leading positions into attractive markets in which we are not yet at home. A good example here could be polymer electronics, which has already been mentioned and which we are currently assessing in terms of its likely potential.

Like others, ALTANA is also affected by the worldwide economic crisis. Does the set of measures of cost-savings have effects on the company's focus on innovation?

It is precisely in times of economic difficulty that companies with great innovative power will prove themselves. Clearly, we also need to bear the economic environment in mind when it comes to R&D and always keep an eye on costs. But this will not affect our innovative power. Our high research quota of 5,5% (2008), i.e. the proportion of R&D expenditure specific to sales, will not decrease. We are always concerned with increasing our efficiency in the area of R&D - by streamlining our project portfolio and optimizing the innovation processes - and this is a process independent of the economic environment.

Source: CHEManager Europe, updated 12/2009