Claus Hviid Christensen is head of research and development (R&D) at Palsgaard, which means his actual job title is the CEO of Nexus. This is because the Danish emulsifier supplier, founded almost 100 years ago, has a completely independent R&D arm.
“Nexus was created to both support the ongoing innovation needs of Palsgaard but also to make sure there was enough ‘out of the box’ thinking to create business opportunities in the longer term,” Christensen told us at the company’s headquarters in Jutland, Denmark. “We don't report to the Palsgaard management but to the chairman of the Schou Foundation. Of course they are not completely unaligned but there is an independence that people would not be able to find in other set ups.”
Novel raw materials
In recent years, Nexus has been focusing on two areas it has identified as key trends. “The first is clearly the trend for natural emulsifiers. People want more and more natural food and therefore more and more natural food ingredients that are sustainable and clean label.”
But the second area – novel raw materials – shows the extent to which Nexus’ research does not need to have an immediate commercial value for Palsgaard.
“We had access to many animal fats so we have been studying those for decades. We don't necessarily want to use animal fats in our products [Palsgaard uses vegetable fats such as palm oil] but still you can learn a lot from exploring their functionality. You can get emulsifiers from algae, from all kinds of sources. One of our board members is actually really interested in octopuses!
“Inspiration can come from many sources and that’s the kind of freedom we enjoy at Nexus. We can look into things that today people would maybe consider crazy or not super relevant but this is what could hopefully give us a competitive advantage in the coming decades.”
Nanoemulsions bring 'completely new fundamental behaviours'
Nexus scientists have also been studying emulsifiers at a molecular level, investigating both natural and artificial nanoemulsions.
“We are increasing our ability to design emulsifiers and their functionality at a molecular level, and then, based on this molecular insight, [...] we can look at new tools to design, produce and manufacture emulsifiers.
“Nanoemulsions attract a lot of interest because when you go to nano-sized particles or nano-sized droplets, you see completely new fundamental behaviours that can sometimes increase your functionality in a completely disproportionate way - or sometimes have the opposite effect," Christensen said.
“It's an area that is interesting to explore, not least because it gives you new ideas of what can actually be achieved. One area where it's really important is the rate or speed at which you can achieve functionality; often with nanoemulsions it's almost instantaneous.”
However, any ingredient that contains nanoparticles will require extensive safety testing to ensure there are no undesirable health effects, Christiansen said – not a problem for a company that takes a long-term approach.
‘Crazy ideas can lead to revolutionary discoveries’
Science and innovation has always been a central component of Palsgaard’s history. Its founder, Einar Viggo Schou, is attributed with having developed the world’s first
commercially-produced water-and-oil emulsifier.
The importance placed on scientific freedom in the company, however, can be traced back to Einar Viggo Schou’s son, Herbert Schou.
Not having any children to bequeath Palsgaard to, and keen to avoid the company being taken over, Herbert Schou created the Schou Foundation in 1957, transferring all Palsgaard’s assets including forests, farm land, buildings and R&D, to the Foundation.
Schou was also something of an experimenter himself, constantly looking for ways to innovate, Christensen said.
“Herbert Schou bought an extruder many many decades ago and everybody said: ‘What do we want that for, why did you spend so much money on that, or do we want to produce plastic?’ But today many of our most competitive products are based on that extrusion production technique.”
Nexus counts 43 scientists on its staff but when you include Palsgaard’s application scientists who work in its product testing labs around the world – it has facilities in Mexico, Singapore, China and is in the process of opening sites in Iran and the US – the number of those dedicated to R&D is probably closer to 80, Christensen said.