Interview | Martin Rahmel, Coordinator greenCHEM and Chemical Invention Factory (CIF) Managing Director

greenCHEM developing the chemical industry of the future


Green chemistry is one of the central building blocks for moving from a linear consumption logic with fossil materials to a circular logic with regenerative materials. There are countless substances on the market that are produced synthetically and that need to be changed bit by bit to achieve sustainability. This applies in particular to the healthcare industry, where pharmaceutical products and new materials for medical technology, for example, could be made more sustainable through green chemistry. greenCHEM is a consortium of 29 partners working towards this under the coordination of the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) with the Chemical Invention Factory (CIF). The project is currently being funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research to the tune of up to 10 million euros. We spoke to the coordinator of the joint project, Martin Rahmel, about the tasks, structure and future of the project.





1. You are Managing Director of the Chemical Invention Factory (CIF) at TU Berlin. What is your role, what is the CIF's target group and what exactly does it offer?


The CIF has the task of unleashing the sustainability impact of green chemistry through the effective transfer of research results into practice. We achieve this by facilitating and supporting technology transfer in an active, structured and structural manner. We pursue a holistic approach because changing chemical processes and designing new materials is difficult and time-consuming. A central aspect in chemistry is the infrastructure required for innovations, such as laboratories. We provide this with the CIF. We are also actively looking at the market and asking industry which sustainability challenges require solutions. In addition to the push logic inherent in research, which brings new processes into practice, we are also using a pull logic that deliberately asks about sustainability problems in the market. Our target groups arise from these approaches. This begins in education, where we teach chemistry students the twelve principles of green chemistry from the outset of their studies. Since 2022, we’ve been doing this in a separate Master's course together with Prof. John Warner, one of the founding fathers of this field. In addition to these technical aspects, a focus is placed on teaching entrepreneurial skills and an understanding of innovations and their mechanisms. Doctoral students are another key target group. Eighty percent of chemistry graduates go on to do a doctorate. If they have excellent research results towards the end of their doctorate, we support them in generating patents and transferring them into market applications. Based on the aforementioned pull logic, industry is also one of our target groups. And finally, we also try to focus on the public, because chemistry itself doesn’t enjoy a good reputation everywhere.


2. How did this project come about?

A distinction must be made between the CIF as a building and greenCHEM, the innovation ecosystem around it. The CIF as a building was the first idea. It ultimately goes back to an initiative of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Berlin (CCI Berlin). Around 2015, they decided to finance a laboratory container to see whether spin-offs would also work in the chemical industry. Until then, the prevailing belief was that this was virtually impossible and that good research results would find their way into practical applications anyway, if they were good enough. That’s a misconception. To show that spin-offs work, the INKULAB was set up at the TU Berlin and this resulted in relatively quick successes. That led to the idea of expanding it all. At the time, Professor John Warner was awarded an honorary professorship at the TU. As one of the co-founders of the twelve principles of green chemistry, he supported the idea of a spin-off center for green chemistry. This is how the planning for the CIF began. When I took over the management in 2020, one of my tasks was to drive the construction forward, advance the development of the idea and put it into practice. Among other things, I simply called the federal government's development funding advisory service and explained what I was planning. Initially, there was no funding for it. Two months later, they called me and informed me about the new funding guideline “T!Raum - TransferRäume für die Zukunft von Regionen” (T!Space - TransferSpaces For The Future of the Regions”). This guideline matched our project perfectly and was intended to take the form of a network. It was a stroke of luck, because we found the ideal partners in the Free University of Berlin and the Humboldt-University of Berlin and were able to successfully apply for funding. The original basic idea of the CIF is now being transferred to the Berlin network and scaled up so that the greenCHEM concept can be seen entirely within the context of the Berlin University Alliance.

3. So the CIF forms the infrastructural framework for the federally funded project "greenCHEM. The Innovative Transfer Space for Green Chemistry in the Capital Region,” in which 29 partners are involved. How do they work together and how do they get innovations off the ground?


A variety of things are needed to take a research result and an idea of what could be done with it into industrial production. Let's take a look, for example, at the different infrastructures that are required. The special thing about our network is that we can provide infrastructure for the entire process thanks to the diversity of our partners. To give an example: After the research has been done, the CIF provides the first step — this is where ideas can be validated and advanced on a laboratory scale. The next stages involve optimization and preparation for production. With the “Scale Up Lab” at the Free University of Berlin, we have another infrastructural element that can achieve this. In addition, the technical center of Covestro AG, which is involved in the project, allows further development on an even larger scale. At the end of the project, there will be potential sites in and around Berlin where production can take place. From the idea to production — everything is mapped in the greenCHEM network.


4. In your opinion, what are the chances of turning the capital region into a hotspot for green chemistry in the long term and thus developing Berlin into a sustainable and future-proof industrial location?

We see a significant advantage in the fact that Berlin is not a traditional chemical location. This is because green chemistry is shaking the foundations of the old successful chemical model — it is a so-called disruptive innovation. In that context, it’s good to go for locations where it’s not immediately obvious what needs to be changed. It’s this infrastructural, historical baggage that often restricts free thinking and prevents people from thinking about radical change. Innovation researchers refer to this as “legacy.” By contrast, Berlin's economic structure gives it an advantage. This is because there are many medium-sized manufacturers who use materials but do not produce them chemically. These are precisely the innovation consumers that we need for the pull logic I described.

Last but not least, I would echo the words of Professor John Warner at greenCHEM’s kick-off and say that Berlin has the potential to become the Silicon Valley of green chemistry. The level of research, existing start-up ecosystems and the city’s mentality all contribute to this. Berlin is a young city that is driven by sustainability and has a good climate for innovation. Together with the opportunities that Brandenburg offers in terms of production, the region is bound to play a leading role in green chemistry and become a sustainable industrial region. However, this will take a lot of time and work — after all, we are talking about the transformation of a very capital-intensive industry.



Martin Rahmel holds a degree in Economic Engineering from TU Berlin. In 2011, he was involved in a spin-off from the TU on the subject of water-based catalysis. In 2013, he and others founded DexLeChem GmbH, which works with green chemistry. There, he built up a global sales network and was co-Managing Director from 2018. He has been Managing Director of the Chemical Invention Factory (CIF) since 2020.

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