We are committed to creating solutions that positively impact people and the environment. To this end, we are determined to make discoveries that change the landscape of entire industries and drive technological as well as scientific innovation to solve the most critical issues of today and tomorrow. Customers, investors and regulators across our markets are increasingly seeking sustainable product solutions.
Our approach to creating sustainable innovation and technology
The sustainable innovation that we envision or drive forward must align with and support the three goals of our sustainability strategy. We define sustainable innovation as new or improved products, services, technologies, or processes that generate economic benefits and have positive environmental and social impacts. Therefore, we develop long-term solutions for our innovation and research activities that consider the entire value chain and evaluate each product’s impact over its lifecycle.
Research and development (R&D) play an essential role in further improving our sustainability performance. They are critical elements that determine the sustainability impact of our products, from their initial conception to market launch. Our business sectors create tailored sustainability strategies to develop products that benefit patients and customers. We are also improving the way we measure our progress, which includes the introduction of sustainability criteria within our product development processes.
In 2021, we partnered with the well-established patent information platform LexisNexis® PatentSight® to assess the sustainability impact of our intellectual property. Building on this, we will start disclosing the share of newly published sustainability-related patent families as of the reporting year 2022.
To develop pioneering solutions that have a positive impact on society and foster organic growth, we are exploring transformative technologies beyond our core products and markets. At the same time, we maintain strategic proximity to our business sectors in order to leverage our existing assets and capabilities. Business model innovation, including digital business models, is one approach we use to generate value for our business and stakeholders.
We fuel transformative technologies through internal incubation, partnerships or strategic investments and collaboration with academia. In addition, we continually seek to foster and encourage open innovation.
Roles and responsibilities
The organizational set-up of our R&D activities reflects the overall structure of our company. All three of our business sectors operate independent R&D units that pursue their own innovation strategies. Group Corporate Sustainability supports our business sectors and group functions to advance and integrate sustainability within our R&D and innovation processes in line with our shared goals.
Our new Group Science & Technology Office leads the implementation of our combined strategy for innovation and “data & digital”, enabling innovation across our business sectors while harnessing the power of highly advanced data and digital capacities. It aims to identify and integrate transformative technology trends into our business sectors while maintaining a company-wide view of our tech roadmap and innovation portfolio. In addition, it ensures the strategic fit of our innovation fields. Fostering data & digital is key to accelerating sustainable innovation and enabling rapid action and personalized offerings. Innovation projects are incubated either through our corporate innovation teams or in the business sectors.
Lastly, we are also investing in sustainable solutions via M Ventures, our strategic corporate venture capital fund. It complements our Life Science, Healthcare and Electronics business sectors by focusing on investments in two areas of high strategic relevance to our company: digital technology and sustainability.
M Ventures’ sustainability investment strategy follows two fundamental approaches. Firstly, investments that offer sustainable solutions relevant to our three business sectors may include novel solutions for reducing emissions or waste, green life science technologies or green electronics technologies. These solutions may be more energy- or resource-efficient or may create a product that has a lower carbon footprint or is designed for circularity.
Secondly, investments that leverage our core competencies to drive sustainability in other markets may include start-ups addressing sustainable foods, biomaterials or even hydrogen technology. An investment in these kinds of industries or markets would aim to use competencies within our company, such as how our life science technologies can be leveraged for sustainable foods.
Our commitment: Aiming for circularity
Within our R&D processes, we continuously improve and integrate sustainability KPIs to measure the sustainability performance of our products and portfolio. For example, our Life Science business sector developed Design for Sustainability (DfS) as well as the DOZN™ tool to enable the creation of more sustainable products for our customers. In addition, several circular economy initiatives are underway throughout the organization, some of which are in collaboration with external partners.
More information on sustainable product design can be found in the “Sustainable products & packaging” chapter.
Accelerating the future of food: Cultured meat
Our Cultured Meat Innovation Field focuses on the biotechnology required to produce genuine meat grown in vitro. This research aims to enable animal protein production that is healthier, more ethical and environmentally sustainable. As a technology enabler, we are leveraging our vast life science expertise to realize our vision of providing fit-for-purpose bioprocessing products and services for cultured meat production. In addition to building strong connections and partnerships with start-ups, academia and leading organizations, we are working on innovation projects to address specific technology challenges.
One major hurdle and cost driver in cultured meat production is cell culture media. To achieve production at scale, the media must be cost-efficient, suitable for effective growth and differentiation into specific cell types and free of any animal-derived material such as fetal bovine serum. Our flagship project MeatDia aims to launch suitable media formulations. We have established multiple partnerships with leading start-ups that are developing pilot-scale manufacturing facilities. Our goal is to supply these start-ups with both off-the-shelf basal media formulations and custom-developed species-specific complete media formulations.
Another technological challenge is the need for suitable bioreactor designs for efficient production of the required biomass. To accelerate our innovation projects in this space, we are collaborating with two leading academic labs. Together with a team at Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, we aim to enable the production of whole-muscle cultured meat through textile bioengineering. At the same time, we will apply industrial printing technology to create of textured meat in collaboration with a team at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany.
Our M Ventures portfolio includes Mosa Meat, a pioneer in clean meat movement, and Formo, a company focused on making clean cheeses (such as mozzarella and ricotta) using recombinant protein synthesis.
Fruitful strategic partnership
We have been engaged in a strategic research partnership with the Technical University (TU) of Darmstadt for more than 15 years. With the realignment of this strategic research partnership in 2021, sustainability is now a fostered focus area of our collaborations. Together, we established the “Sustainability Hub” joint research platform. The hub focuses on research topics, including digitalization, alternatives to animal testing and recycling to support our Sustainability Strategy.
New approaches to life cycle modelling
The detailed life cycle assessment (LCA) of a product and the systematic evaluation of its environmental impact and energy balance from concept to end-of-life is an essential yet challenging process. When successfully implemented, it enables product improvements and contributes to our corporate sustainability goals.
The project “Faster, easier, better? Life Cycle Modelling in the Information Age” takes an interdisciplinary approach to addressing the challenges associated with life cycle assessment. This includes data collection and modeling using latest IT-technology for data collection and evaluation. This will be done in the context of political demands for new data, reporting and monitoring.
Simulation of energy-saving neuromorphic computer architectures
Modern computer centers consume large amounts of energy, but developments around neuromorphic computing have the potential to significantly reduce their energy requirements. Therefore, the project team of “Energy Efficient Simulation of Energy Efficient Storage (EES)2 for Neuromorphic Computing” has set itself the goal of developing energy-efficient simulation tools that predict material properties in energy-saving neuromorphic computer architectures. Successful simulation helps to shorten product development cycles and increase energy efficiency.
Using 3D bioprinting to create cell culture models
During the development of new drugs and in toxicological studies, a wide variety of in vitro cell culture models as well as animal experiments are indispensable in order to evaluate the efficacy and safety of active ingredients. However, the use of cell culture models and organ-like structures is currently limited as the systems are not connected to a vascular system that supplies them with oxygen. Therefore, the project team at TU Darmstadt, “Generation of vascularized human liver tissue by integrating 3D-bioprinting and cellular self-assembly” is working to create a 3D human liver model that can be supplied with oxygen. Within the scope of efficacy and toxicological studies, these models will behave significantly more like real human organs compared with the existing 3D cell culture models. Therefore, the project makes a valuable contribution to our 4R principles (Reduction, Replacement, Refinement, Responsibility) for reducing or avoiding animal experiments in the future.
Enabling the enzymatic degradation of plastics
The largest classes of commodity plastics used today, namely PP (polypropylene), PE (polyethylene) and PS (polystyrene), consist of carbon-carbon backbones, making enzymatic degradation very challenging. The project team at TU Darmstadt “Sustainable Platform Technology for Enzyme-Mediated Recycling of Plastic (EnzyMe RoP)” aims to enable the degradation of plastics with carbon-carbon backbones by creating novel enzymes tailored to these specific requirements. This is to be achieved by combining rational design and directed evolution technologies. The project will also form valuable synergies with our projects addressing plastic recycling from a whole value chain perspective.
Promoting visionary research
The 2021 Future Insight Prize in the Food Generator category focused on food technologies that could help secure sources of nutrition for growing global population. It was awarded during the Merck-sponsored Future Insight Virtual Event to the groups led by Ting Lu, Professor for Bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA, and Stephen Techtmann, Associate Professor for Biosciences at the Michigan Technological University, USA, for their work on transforming non-edible biomass or plastics into food using microbial consortia. The 2022 Future Insight Prize will recognize achievements in energy technologies that help reverse the effects of climate change.
In 2021, for the first time, we offered sustainability research grants to the scientific community to stimulate innovative research on four key aspects of sustainability: circular economy, digitizing sustainability, new bio routes, and responsible & new resources. In total, we received more than 400 research proposals from around the world. Selected projects will receive funding in 2022.
Synergizing external ideas
Together with M Ventures, we reached out to the start-up community with our “Sustainability Startup Initiative – SuStaIn” campaign and through active scouting efforts in 2021. The aim was to collaborate with early-stage innovators and leverage the latest technologies to support our company in becoming more sustainable.