Nylon from Shrimp – A Marketer’s View

NOTE to Readers:  Please don’t assume that I’m ridiculing this particular line of research.  The search for sustainable alternatives to fossil derived raw materials is necessary and laudable.  The ref’d article, however, provides an excellent lesson in how marketing and business strategy principals can and should illuminate the pursuit of new technology.

The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany has announced the (perhaps not-so-surprising) discovery that discarded shrimp and lobster shells can be used as raw material to make nylon polymers.  It’s some clever and interesting science, for sure – but it’s also a proposition that begs for quick application of some marketing and business development strategy principles.

First, a little background – “Nylon” is the genericized trade name for a small family of polyamide polymers invented and commercialized in mid Twentieth Century.  Small monomer molecules carrying an amine group readily react with other monomers carrying carboxylic acid groups to form long polyamide polymer chains.  Worldwide usage of these nylon polyamide polymers – mostly in textile fibers and in strong molded parts – is on the order of 5 million metric tons, 10 billion pounds, per year.

Know what other long polymer chains are linked by polyamide bonds, built from monomers with carboxylic acid and amine groups?  (They’re more commonly called peptide bonds in biological molecules.)  That would be the proteins and their amino acid building blocks!

Thus, it is “not so surprising” that, with some chemical wizardry, it’s possible to regenerate small molecules that have amine and carboxylic acid functionality from bio-wastes.  (In the reported case, the chitosan extracted from shrimp shells is broken down into glucosamine.  A few more steps of chemical wizardry then lead to Fraunhofer’s shrimp-shell nylon.

So, the technology side of this equation is, in principal, not so mysterious.

But, answering that other question – “Is this line of research worthwhile?” – is where we need to apply marketing and business development strategy fundamentals.  And the answer, in turn, depends upon articulating the goal of the research:

– A cheaper route to the existing nylon polymers?

– An exotic new polymer with uniquely valuable properties?

– How to get rid of some of those piles of old shrimp shells?

– Furthering the frontiers of basic academic science?

If the goal is academic science, then this project seems as worthy as any.  If, however, it’s driven by a commercial motivation, especially one with a firm time horizon, then the market and business developer in me says “Wait a minute!”

– The total crustacean shell resource is reported to be less than a million tonnes in Europe, presumably only a couple of million tonnes worldwide.  Probably not enough material to substantially impact the current nylon marketplace, even if you could overcome the logistics hurdle of collecting all those old shrimp shells.

– Currently used nylon intermediates – adipic acid, hexamethylene diamine, caprolactam, for instance – are relatively inexpensive and easy to make from oil, coal or natural gas.  Finding a cheaper, shrimp based, route to those materials will be a tall order indeed.

– The targeted shrimp shell raw material, glucosamine, is readily available today.  An R&D lab program focused on making samples of polyamides from glucosamine or its derivatives will reveal formulations with unusually useful properties.

One of our obligations, as marketers, is to help our organization focus upon the most productive targets for our development resources.  As this story illustrates, applying sound marketing fundamentals at the very beginning of an R&D project can point the work in the right direction and avoid some costly dead ends.

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2 Responses to “Nylon from Shrimp – A Marketer’s View”

  1. Hi Bob,

    I was intrigued by your article, because my instinct has always been to utilise the properties of the bio-polymer rather than conduct several, cost additive steps to create a monomer equivalent to a chemical commodity. Looking at the Science Daily article it would appear that the driver is to find a use for lower grade, calcium-rich chitin, which may be an uncompetitive raw material for chitosan production. ( http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130207074216.htm ).

    I’m a great believer in governments funding research for the generation of knowledge and the methods developed by the Fraunhofer Institute to generate building block chemicals may be the missing piece in a jigsaw for a commercial enterprise seeking to economically produce novel chemistries that cannot be produced economically from petrochemical feedstocks (e.g. pharma or nutraceutical products). Cetrainly Lars Wiemann, who heads the project from the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology, in Straubing, Germany is under no illusions about the economics. To quote from the article:

    ‘The project team is well aware of such issues. “The polymer industry is very price competitive and final monomers, may they come from fossils or renewable, must be cheap,” says Wiemann. He concludes: “If our process is too expensive in the end it won´t be competitive and not relevant for industrial uses.”

    As ever, I htink the misleading culprits are the promoters and – probably non-technical – “communicators” of the European funded project. By spreading catchy yet inaccurate headlines they do more damage than good.

    Great blog. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Bob Brothers says:

    Thanks, Jonathan. I appreciate your comments – and agree with pretty much everything you said.
    I, too, am a great believer in govt funding of scientific research, especially the exploratory sort of basic R&D that doesn’t fit the 5-10 year time horizon of industry’s conventional NROI analyses.
    I also agree with your identification of the culprits – promoters, journalists and other commentators, who garble and distort the message of the research they report. Sometimes, they’re intentionally misleading, but more often, it’s simply a matter of their scientific illiteracy (aggravated by the equally woeful lack of care within the R&D community for intelligently communicating the import of their science to the general public).
    Thus … The obligation of scientifically competent lay-persons to help translate arcane science into messages that are easily digestible by ordinary people.

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