Stories of Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Damien Debecker
By: Dani Clark
This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. We’ve asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you continue to deliver!
Our next innovation story comes from Damien Debecker, Associate Professor at the University of Louvain. In our interview, we hear more about what it takes to be an innovator in research and the benefits of involving different disciplines in innovative work. Much like the award-winning sushi chef in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Damien dreams of ways to produce higher performing catalysts. So, pull on your proverbial lab coat and ready yourself for Damien’s science innovation story!
Damien Debecker’s Innovation Story
After obtaining his Masters in Bio-science engineering and a PhD in heterogeneous catalysis, Damien is now an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Louvain, in Belgium. He is managing a research group of 15 people who are focused on making new catalytic materials for more sustainable chemical processes. He is teaching process engineering, physical chemistry, and biorefining.
UC: What is your field of speciality?
DD: I’m an associate professor at the University of Louvain in Belgium. My field of specialty is green chemistry and more specifically, heterogeneous catalysts, which help us create chemical reactions in a more efficient way. Green chemistry, or sustainable chemistry, is chemistry that we try to do in a cleaner way. It focuses on processes that do not use or produce dangerous, polluting substances. The principles of green chemistry can be applied in all parts of the chemical sector, such as in pharmaceutical chemistry or polymer chemistry.
UC: Where does your personal innovation story begin?
DD: My personal innovation story began when I became a student. I was a very curious kid–always interested in science. I was probably 10 or 12 when I first said that I wanted to be a chemistry teacher, but at university I decided to go for engineering as well. At the end of my engineering studies, I had to complete my master’s thesis. For my thesis, I chose to work in a lab where they were working with heterogeneous catalysts. I really loved that work, and I decided to go for a PhD. And I never quit. It’s the research–that’s my drive every day. I’m also teaching, but really, research is what wakes me up in the morning.
“I have much more fun when I realize I’m exploring things that nobody else has explored before.”
I’m doing both fundamental research and applied research. Most of the time it’s really about bringing knowledge and new fundamental understanding on how to prepare the catalysts we’re working on or coming up with new ones that perform better than the ones we already know.
UC: Describe what that research looks like for you right now.
DD: Going back to heterogeneous catalysts, I’m mostly taking reactions that I know work and trying to find different ways to prepare and synthesize the catalytic materials, allowing the reaction work even better. The goal is to have better performing catalysts, but to do that we first need to understand how these catalysts work. For example, I’m combining material science concepts to design new types of catalysts with better control on the surface composition. Everything is happening on the surface of the catalysts, which have to have an interesting texture. The texture can involve large, uniform pores, which is important for molecules to better diffuse in and out of those catalysts.
UC: What are the impacts of your research on the field at large?
DD: Almost the entire chemical sector uses catalysts. From the petrochemical sector, the energy sector, food industry, and pharmaceutical industry to the environmental sector, it’s estimated that 90 percent of the chemicals we buy or sell on Earth have seen catalysts to be produced. For an even broader perspective, many of us come into contact with catalysts in our cars.
The latest line of research I’m developing is an emerging new line of research worldwide: the idea is to combine the classical inorganic catalysts with the biological ones, enzymes This research could have a big impact, especially in terms of green chemistry because those enzymes are made to work efficiently in green conditions like in water and low temperatures, but at the same time they are so fragile that they cannot be applied to many processes. The idea to combine them with more robust catalysts is really promising. What could happen is that those kind of hybrid catalysts could actually replace two or three steps in very complicated processes.
Typically, pharmaceutical processes that produce drugs have 15 or 20 steps in different reactors with different conditions with different catalysts. With hybrid catalysts, you can shrink the process and intensify it by reducing the number of steps–bringing several steps all together in one reactor with one hybrid catalyst. On top of that, we’re trying to get rid of our dependence on fossil resources with bio-based chemistry. We know we need plastics, solvents, the building blocks to make more complicated molecules, but now we’re trying to build them from plant biomass instead of the hydrocarbons we get from oil.
UC: What does your field have to learn from your research and innovation process?
DD: My take on innovation comes from being at the interface between material sciences, heterogeneous catalytic converters, and the biologists who work with enzymes. I’ve had the chance to be trained in heterogeneous catalysts, but then work with people in the field of material science.
“I tend to believe my work is interesting because it bridges those two worlds.“
Many people who are primarily focused on designing new types of materials don’t always know what they will be used for. Working with people in different fields has broadened my perspective and created opportunity for me to have ideas nobody has had before. I’m just picking up competencies from different worlds and putting them together in innovative ways. The best part is that my friends in material science experience that benefit too.
“It’s all about multidisciplinary work, which is the most exciting way to do science.“
UC: What role do you feel that storytelling plays in innovation? Could you describe the importance of storytelling to your own work?
DD: It’s essential. When it comes to academic research, in order to get other projects, acquire funding, invite many kinds of people to work with us, and have a successful career, we have to publish. And very often excellent studies are never seen because the storytelling is not good. When I was a bit younger, I was doing the research myself in the lab, but now students and researchers are the ones doing it. My work is almost exclusively storytelling now–I take the results and help put it into the form of a shareable story. I’m also very keen on working on social media and blogging to explain my research in simple ways to get it out to a broader audience.
Storytelling in science can be a bit tricky because when you have to write a scientific paper, you have to be rigorous and go into all the details. At the same time, you have to make sure that everything is understood by almost everybody. When I go to conferences and listen to other presentations, I often notice the lack of storytelling. It’s a big problem. People end up presenting very complicated pieces of information that only a few people can follow and understand. Because of this, I’m always trying hard to present my research in very clear, simple and engaging ways.
UC: What one piece of advice would you give to future innovators?
DD: In the scientific research field, I would say go for it, but only if you feel the urge to discover the result of the experiment you’re running. Some people can do good, precise work in the lab, but cannot be good innovators. Innovators are the people who dream about their research and wake up in the middle of the night and think about the next experiment before the first one is already done. So, listen to your gut feeling and if you feel excited, if you’re impatient to discover the results of your experiments, then follow the innovation path. To innovate, be curious about other disciplines and always try to see the potential for connection.
Thanks for reading Damien’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.
*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.