Digitalization in RTOs: Speeding up the development of bio-based technologies with digitalization


Digital tools and processes that change the established ways of doing business are reshaping most industries – and research technology organizations (RTOs) are no exception. By doing in the cloud what has so far only been possible in laboratories and demo plants, the most time-consuming and costly parts of the development process could be skipped, helping bio-based and environmentally friendly technologies become mainstream more quickly.

Around the world many research technology organizations like VTT are partnering with industrial companies to develop bio-based technologies. The key drivers in the rapidly developing bioeconomy are the desire to be the first to market, competition for market share, and ensuring cost-competitive yet environmentally and socially sustainable production. 

Upscaling an innovation from the lab to the pilot stage in order to evaluate its commercial feasibility is often a slow and costly process, but digital technologies can change all this by speeding up both the upscaling process and technology selection, as well as increasing the quality and traceability of products and support continuous development. The catch is that RTOs would need to have several elements in place in order to realize the benefits of digitalization, including access to experimental data, suitable experimental setups, and state-of-the-art analysis methods and simulation models. 

Easing the upscaling bottleneck

One drawback with the way RTOs currently operate is that several people can end up running identical experiments due to the lack of a systematic and unified way of collecting and displaying results data in a digital format. This is equally true both within an individual organization and between different RTOs. But what if RTOs had access to a digital database of experimental results collected and displayed according to common rules and standards? 

What works in the lab may not be easily achievable in the real world, and this is why the piloting step is critical when it comes to attracting investment in new technologies. The data from extensive pilot runs can be used to demonstrate that a process can function as a commercially viable technology. 

Using digitally available data from similar past experiments to model possible outcomes would speed up the process. 

"Basically, we would like to remove as many of these costly traditional steps as possible by utilizing process and product simulation and modeling techniques, including artificial intelligence, visualizations, and data interpretation. Digitalization will bring new and more cost-effective ways to de-risk technologies," says Tiina Nakari-Setälä, VP Research, VTT.

Replacing demonstration with data 

Of course, both time and money are limited resources. 

"There is never the possibility to do everything. All RTOs share the same challenge of limited funds when it comes to conducting basic research. And when the time comes to move on to piloting, there is usually even less money available. The customer companies typically have to cover 50% of the costs, and they would be much more forthcoming with the investment if they had more certainty that the technology was truly viable. With the digitalization approach, it would be much faster and cheaper to select the most viable alternative before the pilot stage", says Nakari-Setälä.

A multi-step journey towards digitalization 

There are three key building blocks that RTOs need to have in place in order to begin their digitalization journey. Firstly, there needs to be common data collection standards that set out how experimental data is going to be gathered and with which technology. 

"Basically, wherever online measurement feeds into a database, there needs to be an agreed system," says Eemeli Hytönen, Technology Manager, VTT. 

The second requirement is standard analytics. Online measurements need to be presented in a standardized format so that everyone can use them and analysis would be based on models that use big data and artificial intelligence techniques. The final requirement is to ensure data security, a common factor in all R&D projects. Standards would also have to be in place to anonymize and exclude sensitive data from a shared system when required to ensure confidentiality or protect intellectual property rights.

In-house and cross-organization 

While codifying, sharing, and analyzing information in digital format is possible within an organization, maximizing the amount of useful data in the database demands cooperation between organizations. This would require agreeing on how data is collected and presented. 

According to Hytönen, "Other industries have successfully collaborated to set standards, and RTOs should be no different. VTT already has a history of working together with multiple RTOs on major projects – for example with the European Commission – and we should look to build on these efforts."

Per-Olof Sjöberg, VP Business & Innovation Area Digitalisation at RISE, the Research Institutes of Sweden, agrees: "Common rules and standards are a prerequisite for making data sharing useful. The quality of the data has to be clear and it should be structured in a common way that is easy to access and understand. Cooperation between European RTOs tends to be on an ad-hoc basis , but we should be doing more together through choice, not just necessity." 

To this end, Dr. Michael J. O'Donohue, Head of the Division of Science for Food and Bioproducts Engineering at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) is coordinating a consortium that has proposed a European research infrastructure aiming to provide the scientific and technical means to halve the average development phase (concept to market time) of bioprocesses from around ten years to five. To achieve this, a range of existing European facilities, including VTT, in several member states will be interconnected using advanced ICT solutions and operated in a consistent manner. 

"Current research tends to be stop-start. We get funding, do some work, then publish the results. Years later somebody else picks it up again and continues. Supra institutional organizations and business process models would link up the work of different RTOs and enable a more continuous process", says O'Donohue.

Staying ahead of the competition

VTT plans to harness its capabilities to start rolling out digitalization efforts while also cooperating with other RTOs. The idea is to develop a model for how this kind of thinking can be incorporated into an organization. 

"We already have big-data and simulation and modeling capabilities, while our multidisciplinary approach means all the needed capabilities are in house. We also have a living lab where our models and approaches can be tested, from first ideas to the pilot stage and beyond, explains Hytönen." 

"The goal is to make the process more systematic and faster. As an RTO, our goal is to bridge the gap between the scientific research of universities and industrial roll-out of the processes and products made possible by that research. Digitalizing our processes will not only help make this happen faster but will increase the chances of securing funding by reducing the overall cost of the project," says Nakari-Setälä.

Per-Olof Sjöberg agrees: "Digitalization will speed up the pace of innovation while simultaneously fostering increased cooperation between the relatively small European RTOs – something I believe is essential if they are to continue to compete with much bigger organizations from other parts of the world."

This is one of the key drivers of the project coordinated by O'Donohue. "The achievement of our goal will significantly reduce the financial burden and risk associated with industrial biotechnology, increase the number of products produced by industrial biotechnology, and thereby ultimately increase the fitness of European industry to respond to changing global markets," he explains.

Tiina NakariSetälä
Tiina Nakari-Setälä
Our vision beyond 2030

Collaboration throughout the manufacturing value chain will create new production methods, using e.g. robotics, 3D printing, and augmented reality to support human labour.