Tom van Aken is a chemist by trade. He earned his master's degree in chemistry from the Utrecht University then joined DSM Fine Chemicals Inc., "which was, at the time, a chemicals company that focused … on petrochemicals," he said, adding that the move to Avantium NV was "essentially a move to another chemicals company."
Van Aken was the vice president of business development from 2002-04 and vice president of global marketing and sales from 2004-05 before becoming CEO of the Amsterdam-based biotechnology company — his first role in plastics.
"Avantium was launched as a spinoff of Royal Dutch Shell, and we were really a high-speed experimentation company for chemistry. After I became CEO, we changed our focus, divested our other businesses in pharmaceuticals to narrow our focus to renewable chemistry technologies, and that's how we got to where we are today," the CEO said.
His interest has been on the commercial side of chemistry and "how you can use it to bring ideas to life," van Aken said.
"From a chemistry perspective, we were developing better catalysts for the industry — we started examining this with a focus on oil and then had the idea to look at other feedstocks because of the scarcity of petroleum," he said. "We started looking at plant-based sugars to develop biofuels, and we eventually settled on developing higher-value products because much of the chemical industry is involved in making materials. That's how we really got into bioplastics, and now, we're even more expert at developing circular solutions in plastics and the mission now includes sustainability."
Avantium's lead product, PEF, is a plant-based, recyclable and degradable plastic material "with a powerful combination of environmental and performance features," according to its website. "PEF has huge potential in the packaging, textiles and film sectors, growing markets worth over $200 billion," the company added.