From collaborating with major brands to navigating the challenges of sustainable product development and end-of-life solutions, Scott Bober, Senior VP of Global Sales at CJ Biomaterials joins host Victoria Meyer on The Chemical Show to provide valuable insights into the ever-evolving world of sustainable chemicals and materials. CJ Biomaterials is a startup within CJ CheilJedang, the 7th largest conglomerate in Korea. Victoria and Scott discuss leveraging CJ’s acquisition of Metabolix, to give them a head-start in the bioplastics market.
Learn more about the following topics this week:
- Helping companies meet ESG and Sustainability Standards through bio-packaging
- Commercializing Sustainable Products
- Identifying Partnerships at different points in the value chain
- Establishing internal processes in a startup business
- Bioplastics vs. cost
- Finding customer and Consumer value in sustainable products
Victoria and Scott also discuss the challenges associated with consumer demand for sustainable products, lack of infrastructure for composting, and the cost of replacing widely used plastics. Sharing how CJ navigates challenges with specialty industrial marketing, Scott discusses their work in sustainability, involving government affairs, collaboration with internal food brands, and attending trade shows. Join us on this episode of The Chemical Show as we explore CJ’s exciting journey in the chemical industry, their commitment to sustainability, and their vision for a more environmentally-friendly future.
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Challenges and Opportunities in Sustainable Industrial Marketing with Scott Bober
Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. This week I am speaking with Scott Bober, who is the senior VP of Global sales at CJ Biomaterials, a startup within the Korean conglomerate CJ Chao Zhejiang. Scott is leveraging his experience gained at a variety of materials and specialty chemical companies including Lindy, Honeywell, Mouser, and RKW. Scott is helping to build a sales organization to commercialize sustainable solutions for flexible and rigid packaging, fiber coatings, 3D printing and more. I know we’re going to have a great conversation. So, Scott, welcome to The Chemical Show.
Thanks Victoria, very happy to be here today.
What is your origin story? How’d you get interested in material science and chemicals and then what ultimately led you to CJ Biomaterials?
I give most of the credit in becoming a chemical engineer to my older brother Eric. I followed him into the University of Pennsylvania chemical program. He’s still in the chemical industry as well. So it’s fascinating. We’ve crossed paths, we’ve shared contacts, and that got me into the chemical engineering industry. I started my career in the food industry as a process engineer. It’s fascinating how similar unit operations are in a food company versus in a chemical plant. It wasn’t until after getting my MBA that I actually joined Allied Chemical in their nylon business and that was my real start from an industry standpoint into chemicals. What’s kept me there though is I love materials, I love chemicals, and I’m a problem solver at heart. What I like about the industry is that it’s ubiquitous, it’s everywhere. Being able to sell into every industry on Earth is fascinating because every day you’re solving a different customer’s unique problem. So I’m using my problem solving skills to do that.
After years in specialty chemical packaging plastics, I got a call from my network, from a former colleague, Heidi Labelle, who I worked with at Honeywell. She said, “Hey, I just joined as head of marketing in this startup company, did you ever hear of them?” I’m like, “Nope, never heard of it.” Did some research and I started to reflect on all my years in fossil based plastics companies, helping to create some fascinating solutions like flexible packaging, some really unique properties that you could bring to protect food and healthcare items. But solutions were clearly needed on what to do with all of this packaging once we’re done using it. So the thought of joining a biomaterials company was really interesting and it was the right time for me.
That’s cool. So tell us a little bit more about CJ because as you say, it’s a startup business, but probably people don’t know much about it.
Sure, so CJ is a 30 billion plus Korean conglomerate. We’re in everything from the food business, we own Schwann’s which is Freschetta Pizza, Red Baron, Tony’s Pizza, Mrs. Smith’s apple pies, Bibigo Dumplings. We have an entertainment division that has produced Parasite and Succession. We have a logistics and a retail business, and then we have this $5 billion bio business. That bio business essentially starts with sugar, which goes through a fermentation process that produces animal and human proteins, and they sell those into either food companies or to farmers.
That division had an interest in improving the health and wellbeing of humans and animals using biotechnology. In 2016, they acquired a former startup from MIT called Metabolics. Metabolics had worked on developing a chemical called PHA, polyhydroxyalkanoate, which is in the polyester family. It’s kind of similar to PLA. So CJ took that technology and did a lot of R&D work on strain development and purification, and in 2022 started up a PHA production plant in Indonesia at one of our existing animal protein plants. So we’re pretty new to the game. It’s a new business for CJ, but so far it’s been an incredible opportunity.
That’s cool. So CJ Biomaterials, the business that you’re part of, is taking this PHA to market.
Exactly, right now we have what we call an amorphous PHA, which is very rubbery. We’re using that in formulations of everything from compounding, 3D printing, injection molding, to thermoforming rigid flexible packaging, mostly in combination with other polymers, mostly other biopolymers. For instance, PLA has been around for about 25 years, and we work with NatureWorks, who’s one of the large PLA producers. In collaboration we develop unique solutions using our fact brands PHA and their NGO PLA and then provide that to customers in various industries. The properties of PHA and PLA are complementary. So our amorphous PHA is very rubbery and PLA can be brittle in certain applications. When you compound them together, you get the best of both worlds.
Yeah, that’s cool. Is part of the intent for CJ to be kind of back integrated? When you mentioned all the brands that they own and that they’re part of, there’s a lot of packaging that goes into those consumer products. Is the intent that ultimately there’s some backward integration across the business from a packaging perspective as well?
I don’t think necessarily by intent, but certainly we’re working with several of our cosmetics brands and food brands, on helping them achieve their ESG sustainability targets using our polymer as well as our knowledge of biopolymers. So it’s working out great collaboratively. We’re getting a chance to learn a lot quicker than we are with some third party customers. Certainly the integration into the fermentation process was on purpose and that gave us a jump start into the technology.
That’s very cool. So you’re obviously now trying to go to market commercializing new products. What are the biggest challenges that you find and how do you overcome those challenges?
A product like ours is relatively new to market. There’s a couple of other people who are producing similar PHA products, but the amorphous blend that we have right now is very unique. So to me, in any specialty material business, it’s about understanding the market segments, the specific needs, and the next best alternative of what the customer is going to compare it to. The exciting part is that it could be unique, there could be a market segment of one. The frustrating part is that it’s a lot different than consumer marketing, where you hope to find a million customers who look just like this persona. So it’s really understanding what are the right segments that you have a strong value proposition for and is that attractive enough to go after? If not, then you either need to iterate on your offering or you need to find other segments. I think initially that’s a challenge in any specialty industrial marketing.
Yeah, absolutely. And it sounds like you guys are engaging in some partnerships, whether they’re formally called partnerships or whether they’re loosely defined. Can you talk more about that and how that plays in?
Sure, I’d love to. What we’ve realized is that the value chain is very complex and you need to be at multiple steps in the value chain. So we’re talking to brands, retailers, compounders, and converters to get that VOC, that voice of customer, from multiple avenues is something that’s really important. Essentially a lot of our applications are driven by either regulation, company policy or ESG targets. So understanding from the brand and working back into the value chain is incredibly important. We’re working with Accor Hotels on developing Amenity packs for their customers. We’re working with our own brands, as I mentioned. We’re working with Schwann’s on some of their packaging requirements. We’re working with Olive Young, which is a Korean cosmetics brand. We’re working with, as I mentioned, NatureWorks. We’re also working with ITOCHU, who’s a large Japanese trading company, on helping us get access to the Japanese market and other markets. So finding those right channel partners is one of the ways to accelerate that process of getting the feedback and eventually commercializing.
Yeah, and it sounds like you’ve gotten to that point pretty quickly on a relative basis for new product development. Getting to a place where you can identify some of those specific partners at different points in the value chain often takes a lot of time just to even get the attention from them. So it seems like you guys have been able to accelerate that process.
So we had some help. I mentioned that CJ acquired a company called Metabolix, so several of the members on our team are from Metabolics. They actually started commercializing a similar product about ten years ago, so we had a head start. Also, the resources of the larger CJ company have certainly helped open up those doors. We’re doing a lot of that work in Korea, and we’re the 7th largest conglomerate in Korea. So the CJ name in Korea means something and that helps. We have some of those brands. We also have a lot of curiosity in the industry because there’s a lot of brands that realize that they’re going to have to do something different. Recycling may work for some applications and it’s not going to work for others.
Our product is both plant based, so it’s not using fossil fuels, and it’s also very biodegradable. Bioplastics by definition meet one or both of those criteria, and we actually meet both of those. So for brands that want to achieve industrial compostability or home compostability or marine compostability, depending on what you blend our product with, we can help customers achieve those targets. And there’s not a lot of polymers that can, particularly ones that are also plant based. So we have the attention of the technology teams of many major brands around the world and that is really what’s accelerating our ability to get voice.
I think there is always that tension, between how fast can you move and how much are they willing to pay for? That’s one of the big dilemmas right now. If you think about circularity and bioplastics and renewable materials, they just have a higher cost base, certainly for now. How are you guys tackling that? Are you seeing that as an issue yet or is it still to be determined as it commercializes?
Yeah, we’re absolutely facing that already and you’re right. At the end of the day, does the consumer want something that’s sustainable? Sure. Do they want to pay more for it? There are some consumers that are. But how do you reach them? The lack of infrastructure on end of life for composting is also a challenge at the end of the life of these products and more brands as well as plastics producers need to be concerned about the end of life. So I think members in our value chain, our customers, they’re acutely aware of the challenges that we face, particularly at the scale that we’re at now.
We try to do the best we can to use our technology. We have an incredible applications technology team that works with the customers to try to find ways to offset some of the price per kg. In the compounding process or in utilization of regenerate internal to a process, we’re able to help customers mitigate some of that cost. But at the end of the day, if you want to replace polyethylene or polypropylene which are produced in billion pound scales using very cheap natural gas, you’re not going to get there. So there is certainly a high cost but there’s also a cost of end of life to society if you don’t solve the problem. That’s where government regulators need to come in, and they are coming in and helping the industry get there quicker than we would on our own.
Yeah, and it’s tough. As a consumer it’s very difficult to navigate, because even despite my best intent to properly recycle and handle end of life, as you say. The infrastructure is not robust enough in many cases.
And many consumers aren’t educated.
That’s exactly it. Figuring out what you can and cannot recycle or how to treat certain things. It is difficult. I think consumer labeling is getting better, from some companies at least, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Next week I’m going to the 3M Open, which is a golf tournament that 3M sponsors, and I’m invited as a guest of NatureWorks in their suite since they’re the sustainable partner for the 3M Open. I’m very curious to see how this works in practice, because they’re going to have garbage cans, recycling cans and composting cans. My expectation is that I’m going to naturally observe people doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. Even if a consumer wants to do the right thing, how many seconds are you gonna take to try to figure out, which bin does this go in? If you take something that’s meant to be composted and you put it in the recycling bin, you could actually spoil the recycling. We’re not even there, as Americans, in understanding recycling. People don’t know.
I walk down my street and I say to my wife, “That person’s trying to recycle something the wrong way or recycle something that’s not recyclable.” That’s where we are 30 or 40 years into recycling. Composting is going to be even more challenging. But a lot of towns are biting into composting. Boston and New York City are collecting food scraps, and now we have to convince them that collecting food serviceware that can be composted as well should be in that same bin. So that’s a challenge that we’re working on, with regulators as well as industry partners to try to understand better.
Yeah, I think that’s a great point. We could spend all day talking about that, but we’re going to move forward though. So you’ve obviously worked with a lot of very large, well established companies and you’ve now moved into a startup. What I didn’t realize before we started this conversation is that it’s a startup inside of a very large, well-established company. But there’s definitely a shift and I think we all recognize that. What’s been the biggest surprise as you are working and leading in a startup business, versus where you’ve been in the past with some larger businesses and larger companies?
Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things that come to mind. One is that you don’t know what you don’t know because you haven’t been there yet. So every day we’re learning something new and we have to filter it into if we make a decision on this or if we put it into the do this tomorrow pile. You’re constantly surprised by what your new challenge is. What I’d say also is that we have an opportunity to establish internal processes that work for our business, for the scale that we’re at, the nature of our business, and our maturity. Sometimes we do get the opportunity to borrow from our larger division, but sometimes it’s best to actually create our own process. Although the focus needs to be external with customers out in the market, to help our team be successful we need processes. So deciding which ones we want to build from scratch, which ones we want to beg, borrow, or steal, or which ones I could bring from my knowledge of other companies that I’ve worked with, I think that’s more of a challenge than I expected it to be.
What I think is interesting, obviously CJ has acquired a business that was already on the innovation, development and commercialization path. Yet what I see is that it’s really hard for big companies to actually have the capacity to nurture new innovations. So that’s where across the industry we see so many partnerships happening. Whether it be in surfactants or bioplastics and materials or other places, because inherently it’s very difficult to have a sufficient bandwidth. New innovations typically don’t meet the scale to actually move the needle and so therefore it’s easy to kill them off. So figuring out how to actually sustain, nurture and protect a new business that’s relatively tiny compared to the rest of the businesses is a big challenge.
Yeah, it is. Part of my job is to make sure that our corporate management team gets fed the right information and is looking at the right metrics. When you’re a startup, you don’t have sales until you make a sale. So you have a pipeline, and our pipeline, most of our opportunities have a natural sales cycle of one to three years.
Large brands aren’t going to drop their polypropylene or polyethylene packaging and put in a brand new polymer just overnight. Especially if it’s more expensive or they might have to tweak their machines a little bit. So the sales cycle is going to be long. Having that patience to see it through and for me, as the sales leader, communicating milestones in my pipeline is a way for me to bridge the information that senior management wants to hear with what’s happening inside the business on a daily basis.
I think that’s a great perspective. How soon will we start seeing some of these products in consumer markets?
They’re starting to float in now. We have cosmetics containers that have our product in it. We just launched straws. It’s been popular to switch from plastic straws made out of polypropylene to paper straws, which have some advantages, but nobody likes to drink through a paper straw. !!Not at all!! So making the switch to PLA straws, but PLA straws can be brittle and they can crack. But by adding a little bit of PHA to the straws, it blends in some of those properties I mentioned before. So we just launched straws with a couple of brands. Right now, those are in Korea. We’re bringing those to the US soon though. So we’re starting to get there one application at a time. We’re also going to be launching a new product within the next few months. Right now, our product is called Amorphous PHA, and we also have a semi crystalline grade, which is in the same family, and we’re launching that in a few months. That is going to give us access to a whole new slate of applications.
So we’re going to start seeing it in the market. Certainly your Korean customers are starting to see that.
Yeah, and we got a head start there because we have a very large R&D team in Korea. While we have a small one in the US. We also just have the brand recognition in Korea, so it’s much easier to open up those doors. Then part of my job is translating those successes globally, wherever we have salespeople in places like China, Europe, the US, and as well as in Korea.
I mean, we’ve touched on this a little. Maybe it’s worth hitting up again, this whole aspect of product sustainability, and obviously we’re seeing a lot of pressures along the way with that. How deep are you guys getting into consumer value as it relates to that? Because at the end of the day, it’s not a field of dreams. If you build it, they will not come. You actually have to have a demand draw or demand creation. Which is possible, but challenging. How are you guys tackling that?
Multiple angles. So we have a government affairs team that’s talking to regulators in the US and in Korea. We’re working with our channel partners. We’re working with our internal food brands who have great access to customers. We’re going to a lot of trade shows that have multiple value chain partners. So we’ll be at SPC, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, in Boston this September. A lot of brands will be there, retailers will be there, and we’re talking to a lot of people. So probably less to consumers directly and more through brands.
We’re trying to understand what each brand has because, each brand has a different ESG target and a different consumer audience that they’re trying to hit. So one of our customers in Korea is selling a vegan cosmetics product, and they wanted their package to match the image that they have for their cosmetics, and they realized that a fossil based package wasn’t in line so they wanted to have a bio based package, and we helped them achieve and launch that. So that’s how we’re getting that voice, indirectly through the brand in this case.
I know on a global basis we are in the process of negotiating the UN Plastics Treaty. I recently spoke with Chet Thompson from AFPM, who is at the negotiations, about where it’s heading and what the timeline is. How does it affect your products? Are you guys the beneficiaries of the plastics treaty? Are your products directly engaged in their show? Does that fit for you from just a regulatory perspective?
Yeah, so I listened to that podcast. I learned a lot, it was a great podcast. I’d say it depends. The industry needs clarity and that’s something that’s certainly lacking, even if it’s just regional. We need clarity and where Europe seems to be headed, verus where the US seems to be headed are a little bit different. It’ll be very challenging to get global clarity, but we also want regulators and the industry to be better educated than they are now. There’s a lot of confusion over composting and recycling. So we could be the beneficiaries if investments are made in composting infrastructure, and if education is put there. But there’s also some potential regulations that could hurt us. If it bans bioplastics, for instance, because there’s a lot of fear of what is a bioplastic and if it has a place in this stream.
Categorization is critical. Along with having the right definitions, which of course industry groups have been working on that forever as new products and new regulations getting introduced. Ensuring that there’s appropriate definitions, categorizations, and regulations specifically around it. So I guess we will all be watching to see what happens.
I know CJ is a Korean company and you’ve already referenced that you guys are developing a little bit quicker just on the basis of your current position in Korea. Is there the same interest in sustainability and bio based materials in Korea?
Do you feel like that it’s moving quicker than North America or on par? What’s your assessment of that?
It’s a smaller environment, so I think it’s a little bit easier for them to set a direction and control the direction. So yeah, I think it’s moving faster in Korea. We’re seeing it even in the PVC industry, where we could potentially be used as an additive, even though that’s a different play. It’s not the same environmental play, but where regulation brings people in the industry. We have people that are trying to understand the legislation in Korea, but Korea is kind of isolated because I don’t know that any other country is necessarily going to follow Korea’s policies. Where Europe will act all as one and there are some countries that will follow Europe. The US may act as one, it may act as 50 or something in between, but there’s other countries that will follow what the US does.
That makes sense. So Scott, what’s next for you? What’s next for CJ Biomaterials? What should we be looking for as we close out 2023 and move into 2024?
Yeah, so, it’s a fascinating opportunity that’s going to keep accelerating for me personally and for the business. I came here to help build a world class global sales organization. I’ve just started that and I’m committed to continuing that. In doing that, my team is going to be successful commercializing these applications with lots of customers in lots of different markets. So it is going to be PHA all over the place. Sometimes you’ll know it, sometimes you won’t. Our brand name right now is a small brand name, but we’re going to build on that. As I said, we’re going to launch a semi crystalline grade. We have a couple of other product formulations in our R&D kit as well that we’re working on launching.
So right now, we have one small plant in Indonesia. We hope to build a world scale plant, most likely in the US, within the next couple of years. That’s going to be a big investment. So we’re trying to get to that comfort level that it’s the right time and also taking the time to fine tune exactly what the product looks like, and what the production process looks like. But stay tuned for news, hopefully within the next year or two, on that.
Awesome. Well, that’ll be great. Scott, thank you for joining us. This has been super interesting. I’ve loved learning more about the business and you. And I appreciate you joining us on The Chemical Show.
Thanks, Victoria. It’s my pleasure.
Absolutely. And thanks everyone for reading. Keep reading, following, sharing, and we will talk to you again soon.
About Scott Bober:
Scott Bober is a passionate and process-oriented servant leader, with a proven record of profitably growing global businesses and building powerful teams. Trained at academy corporations such as Honeywell and Linde, Mr. Bober has more recently scaled his experiences for mid-sized enterprises across multiple verticals and business models. His skills are adaptable to private equity, public and family ownership. He combines business acumen with Lean, Six Sigma and commercial excellence tools to drive sustainable improvements in organizations and processes.
Mr. Bober is the Senior Vice President of Global Sales for CJ Biomaterials; a start-up within the Korean conglomerate CJ CheilJedang. In this new role, he is helping to build a sales organization to commercialize sustainable solutions for flexible and rigid packaging, fiber, coatings, 3D printing and other applications.
Previously, Mr. Bober served as President of a North American business unit for a German family-owned packaging manufacturer, where he led the turnaround of a 170-person team. He has held VP-level commercial leadership positions in the specialty chemical and material industries, as well as in flexible and rigid packaging. He is considered an expert in developing sales methodologies and implementing management operating systems for complex and transactional sales models, and is a firm believer in training and coaching individual contributors and managers according to their competency profiles. He has implemented CRM and other IT enabling technologies, and has extensive experience in strategic planning, new product development and stage gate processes.
Mr. Bober is a trusted advisor to many in his expansive professional network, who seek his advice on broad commercial matters as well as specific industry challenges. He also has served as both a formal and informal mentor for many colleagues across the globe.
Mr. Bober resides in Morris Plains, NJ with his wife Valerie. His contributions to his community are highlighted by his seven years of service on the Morris Plains Board of Education, where he led Negotiations and Strategic Planning committees. He also volunteers his time as a pro-bono consultant to non-profit organizations through PennPAC. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from The University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s in Business Administration from Columbia Business School, and is an active alumnus of both institutions.