Pre-normative research in algae-based product development

I have been working quite a while in the algae sector but recently I learned about something that was new to me. It’s called pre-normative research. Algae research and development activities are striving towards standardization of methods and products. Pre-normative and co-normative research are part of a standardization process. However, I did rarely see algae projects including those methods. Time to find out why. I talked to Isabel Canto De Loura, CEO of STELLARIA. and expert in pre-normative and co-normative research.

AO: Isabel, could you briefly tell us what pre-normative & co-normative Research is?

iKL/STELLARIA: PNR stands for pre-normative research (or pre-standardization research) and refers to the methodological or procedural steps which address any gaps in technical knowledge required to inform the progress and strategy of research and development (R&D) projects.  Once the procedural steps or method are agreed by the team, they can be tested further during the co-normative research (CNR) which, as the name indicates, will run in parallel with the normative (i.e. standardization) process to ensure that the defined metrics and procedures are adequate and can stand as a technical ‘best practice’ guidelines (i.e. standards) to inform the research reproducibility (by the team) and repeatability (by the wider scientific community). Standards are by default voluntary. However, given that they are ready-made tested guidelines, they tend to be used consistently as a rule. As such, the overall process may lead to prescriptive norms and regulations.   

AO: What type of projects/organisations would benefit from that?

iKL/STELLARIA: We might say that throughout research history, in whichever field, and whenever a technical / methodological gap was filled, researchers have to a lesser or greater extent performed PNR, even if it was not named as such. However, as state-of-the-art moves forward at an increased rate, PNR nowadays becomes core to research processes, and especially in bio-based research (although I may be biased in saying so), as we are now using novel bio-sources (or tested or traditional bio-material grown in ‘unorthodox’ conditions). Therefore, researchers are often faced with technical gaps or uncertainties regarding either minor or critical steps, which need either to be modified or ‘invented’ in order to achieve the intended outcomes, whilst ensuring safety and best practice along the overall process.

AO: Could you give an example for an algae project?

iKL/STELLARIA: Algae (used sensu lato to include cyanobacteria and algal GMOs) have become a highly seeked target for the development of bio-based innovative product development. However, given their diversity and the fact that some are now grown in a very sustainable but rather ‘unorthodox’ fashion (for instance, using wastewater and emissions from industrial plants) precautions need to be taken throughout the production operations, to ensure that at each and every stage specific novel methods, procedures and metrics are developed and tested to guarantee not only the repeatability and reproducibility of the method, but more importantly to ensure that biosafety of researchers, as well as the safety of the intended end-users  is in place. This is particularly relevant to all those projects which have as intended outcome the development of products designed for example, for pharmaceutical or nutraceutical use, for human/animal skin contact (textiles, cosmetics, rubbing gels, etc.), for bioplastics for food contact, and so on.

AO: Why is pre-normative research seldom a part of research projects even if standardization is a key element in many EU policies and for achieving policy goals?

iKL/STELLARIA: The EU takes standardization very seriously and great progress has been made over the years. Pre-normative research (PNR) is now embedded in most fields, spanning from areas as diverse as cybersecurity through seismology and onto biotechnology, for example. In fact, a recent EU Commission working document (dated from last year, 2018) on the ‘Joint Initiative on Standardisation’ highlights the importance of PNR, and some H2020 calls already include a requirement that reads along the lines of ‘Proposals should also allow for pre- and co-normative research necessary for the needed product quality’.

From the Bioeconomy perspective, the move to more sustainable and bio-based sources, we are expecting to see the requirement for PNR and CNR increase considerably within the next few years. At the moment, it is still in its infancy which, from our point of view, is a very promising opportunity for concerted actions and growth.

Historically, the environmental and societal requirements for projects have gradually evolved from the basic evaluation of market value, through to the requirement of establishing potential (environmental) hazards. Later, the requirements started integrating the need for a brief assessment of social impacts, followed by a requirement to integrate environmental impact assessment of the developed processes or products using life cycle assessment (LCA), life cycle costing (LCC) and social life cycle assessment (S-LCA). Application of EU regulation 1223/2009 on cosmetic, and standard HACCP (Hazard analysis and critical control points) a systematic preventive approach to food safety from biological, chemical, and physical hazards in production processes, for instance, have been in use for a while, when relevant. The Netherlands Standardization Institute (NEN) has been key to the development of many of the standards in use.

The CEN/TC 411 for Bio-based products is comprised of a series of standards already. Dating from 2014 onwards, and the CEN/TC 454 specifically for ‘Algae and algae products’ is in progress. The scope is wide and the possibilities for improvement immense.

AO: Horizon 2020 aims on market uptake of innovation, supporting standardisation through research and putting science into standards. May including pre-normative workpackages lead to an advantage for a proposal?

iKL/STELLARIA: Definitely. And from what I have had the chance to see, most projects and teams are in Bioeconomy -related projects are already embedding it clearly in their projects.

AO: Do we need to focus more on standards within the algae R&D generally?

iKL/STELLARIA: The algae-based novel product development area is still at its infancy but growing exponentially. The CEN/TC 411 and more specifically the CEN/TC 454 are the go-to guidelines and will certainly quickly evolve to meet the requirements as they become apparent.

AO: You transferred STELLARIA from London to Lisbon. Why is that and did you stick to your business model and service portfolio?

iKL/STELLARIA: The decision to shut down the London (UK)-based ‘STELLARIA’  and launch it in Lisbon (Portugal) has been triggered by two independent events: Brexit, as it would surely undermine potential collaborations in EU projects; but mostly my personal long-planned decision to return indefinitely to my country of origin and my home town, Lisbon, by 2021. Also, it is somewhat easier to get premises in Portugal, for now.

AO: Do you offer placements or jobs/are you seeking partnerships and collaborative R&D opportunities?

iKL/STELLARIA: Yes, and yes. We are a recently launched micro-enterprise, but we have already been involved in a collaborative R&D project proposal in 2018. We are  not yet widely  known, but in terms of placements we definitely aim to attract and retain a dedicated team (comprised both of recently graduated and experienced researchers/technicians) and most importantly eagerly seek  to participate in R&D collaborative projects both with academic and industrial teams, be it for PNR and LCA, be it for project dissemination to wider audience, or for novel product development and introduction to market.

AO: Thank you very much for the chance to learn about pre- and co-normative research in bio-based product development especially concerning algae. From my point of view the ongoing activities towards creating standards in algae biotech as well as the growing number of algae products will lead to an increasing need for PNR and CNR. We will keep an eye on this topic.

Contact Information:
Dr. Isabel Canto de Loura
Stellaria | Lisbon, Portugal

Photo Credit: Microphyt vie Flickr under CC