Scoring Chemical Industry Trend Predictions from 2023

Polymer scientist and blogger Tony reflects on his predictions earlier this year and where they stand now
Industry Matters Newsletter

By: Tony, The Polymerist

Earlier this year I put out some predictions for 2023. The year is ending in a few weeks and it’s time to check in and see how I did.

No Recession…Yet

Last year I wrote about how a recession might be lurking out there. I’ve had some former coworkers in industrial chemicals get laid off this year and a lot of anecdotes from former coworkers telling me of small reductions in force across the industry. The silver lining here is that for the most part most of these people have been able to find employment at higher wages and better benefits. A big problem with a new job is that it often means moving cities, which can be tough if you have a young family. Overall, I think the chemical industry has been pretty robust throughout 2023.

Biotech has been struggling. Biospace has been tracking many of the layoffs in biopharma this year including SQZ Biotechnologies (-80%), Regenxbio (-15%), Lyell Immunopharma (-25%), Arbutus Biopharma (-24%), and that was just some in November. To all of those affected in the space I hope you get new jobs soon. As I wrote last year, this stuff is way outside of your control and it doesn’t hurt to be ready.

Fragmentation and Consolidation

Last year I predicted that large chemical companies will seek to become more focused as we move into 2023 and either look to consolidate end markets by buying competitors businesses or divesting commoditized businesses. I think this is still true, but my timing appears to be off. While I think I correctly identified a trend I don’t think 2023 was a big year for it. We have seen overall fewer M&A deals in chemicals in 2023 than we did in 2022. Perhaps, this is due to a higher cost of capital partly due to the benchmark rate set by the Federal Reserve. Deals that made sense in 2022, and there were a lot, were probably more difficult in 2023.  

I think that with higher interest rates this also means that chemical companies will have to be ruthlessly efficient, disciplined, and smart in how they provide returns to their shareholders.

Start-ups are Starting and Growing

While everything above might seem grim or cynical I am still excited and hopeful about the current state of start-up chemical companies seeking to decarbonize the traditional petrochemical industry. Lummus and Citroniq just agreed to build commercial bio-based manufacturing capacity for polypropylene. Solugen is going to build a second plant with Archer Daniels Midland. Origin Materials just completed their first plant and has started producing biobased chemicals. Multiple enzyme immobilization companies such as Cascade Biocatalysts and Caravel Bio have raised their first rounds of funding. All of this forward momentum in chemicals is occurring in the wake of the traditional biotech pharma contraction (see above) and the bankruptcy of Amyris. I’m hopeful that this wave of companies is built differently than their predecessors with an early focus on free cash flow and picking strategic end markets. I think a winning combination for these companies will be a mix of industry veterans tempering new entrants with big ideas.

Overall, I’d say I got about half of my predictions right.

If you liked this advice and insight, consider subscribing to my newsletter The Polymerist, where I write about being a career scientist, chemical product development, the origins of our current chemicals, and the future. I wish I had a resource like this when I was a younger chemist starting off in the chemical industry. It’s free, and I encourage you to check it out each Tuesday. This story will be published there next week. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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