Thought Leaders

How iFormulate Supports Essential Cross-Sector Formulation Science

insights from industryDr. Jim Bullock Director and Co-FounderiFormulate

At ChemUK 2023, AZoM caught up with Jim Bullock from iFormulate to discuss their essential, cross-sector work, and some of the most significant challenges and opportunities facing formulation-based industries in the coming years. 

Please could you introduce yourself and your professional background?

My name is Jim Bullock. I'm the director and co-founder of iFormulate. We're a consultancy involved in formulation science and technology. We help companies with their formulation challenges, realizing opportunities, and solving their problems for them.

What is formulation science, and why does it require interventions?

Formulation is used across virtually all industries that use chemicals and chemistry. It is putting together ingredients to create products that perform the way that the people who sell them want them to perform, and so they're normally quite complex products.

A formulated product could be a cosmetic preparation, a pharmaceutical formulation, or it can be a pesticide formulation. Very often, people inherit or try to develop formulations, and they don't understand the role of each of those ingredients and how they interact with each other to give you the performance you want. So that's where we get involved in trying to pick apart formulations, helping design new formulations, and solving problems with old formulations.

What kinds of problems do you help your clients overcome?

I would say the biggest challenges that we see are meeting the new demands for sustainability and meeting the requirements of regulators.

There is a regulatory pressure in every industry that uses chemicals, from pharmaceuticals to pesticides to biocides and cosmetics. There are also a lot of changing regulations. In the UK, we've split off from the regulations of the EU, and the UK might be involved in coming up with successors to REACH and new regulations. Nobody knows quite how that's going to pan out in the future, so regulations and keeping up to date with regulations impacts us - because that's one of the reasons we get asked to help reformulate products.

Formulation Science

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The other point is sustainability over and above what the regulators say. Downstream customers are demanding that the supply chain is much, much more sustainable now than ever before. So looking at carbon footprint, renewable, raw materials processing, and so on, from a sustainability point of view, is really important.

How far-reaching is your work across sectors?

We work in literally every formulating sector. When we set up iFormulate 10 years ago, we decided we would work across different sectors. We had experience in different sectors, and we decided we could use that experience and actually take ideas from one sector and use them in another. So quite often, we will pick up an idea that's been used in pharmaceuticals and help a client apply it, let's say, in agrochemicals or in cosmetics.

What does research and development look like at iFormulate?

We are very, very lean and mean. We don't have any labs. So what we try to do, if possible, is help our clients learn in their own laboratories, if they've got their own laboratories. So we will advise them on what experiments they should be doing and how to interpret their experiments. So if you like, we're the kind of virtual scientists that they don't have sometimes, and we'll sit on their shoulders and look at what they're doing in their own labs. Maybe if they need some new techniques and new equipment, we'll advise them on bringing that in. Or if they need third-party labs to help supplement their own capabilities, we'll help find third-party labs to do the extra work that needs to be done. So yes, we're lean and mean, and, therefore, I think the principle is getting the clients to learn how to do it for themselves.

How significant is iFormulate’s network?

When we set up iFormulate, we did it because my business partner and myself have both been in the industry for a number of years. We thought we knew enough from a knowledge point of view, a technical point of view, and the market point of view. But the other element to being a successful consultant is also knowing who people are.

You've got to know enough stuff, and you've got to know enough people. Of course, shows like this and other events that we attend are very much about networking, getting to know people, and catching up with people that we haven't seen for a few years as well. So absolutely, the network is fundamental to what we do.

How important is ChemUK in particular to the company?

This is probably the largest show that we attend in the UK. We go to a number of overseas shows and UK shows, but I would say this is the largest. And it's very wide-ranging in terms of its subject matter. You see people here selling lab equipment, selling services, selling chemicals, but also selling large process equipment, pumps and filters, and so on. So it's kind of a meeting place for everybody. It's a really useful show from that point of view.

As well as acting as formulators, you also provide training to different clients. Could you tell us more about this training?

We are seeing quite a steady and probably growing demand for training and customized training in the formulation area. That's something we're always happy to get involved in. And it's a great way of actually getting to know clients  - by doing either public courses or customized bespoke courses online or in person.

We start off with what we call formulation basics, which is a really simple hands-on one-day course where we even do some simple experiments with household material formulations. We also then do more specialized courses that might last several days and go into detail on various different topics, either industry-specific or technology-specific.

Formulation Science

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We're a small outfit, but what we do is bring in third-party expertise - that's part of the network again. So we know people who've got expertise and experience in specific areas. We'll bring them in as additional lecturers on these courses where we need them. This supplements our own knowledge as well.

You led a talk on microplastics in formulations at ChemUK this May. Is this a subject area that you frequently engage with at iFormulate?

We have been asked to help out on those sorts of assignments on a number of occasions, especially where clients are looking for potential replacement technologies for their existing formulations which make use of microplastics. And so that's one of the reasons that we've kind of scouted the area. We've looked for examples of companies with new technologies, patents, and publications. So I'm able to talk about microplastics without giving away any of the work that we've done for clients.

It's certainly a hot topic in a number of industries. We don't sometimes realize what's in our products, and over the years, it's been acceptable to use microcapsules made of polymers, for instance, because they have really beneficial properties. But now people are finding out that some of these microplastics are not beneficial in terms of environmental and health points of view, and therefore they have to be replaced.

So luckily, there are a lot of new technologies out there. There's no one dominant technology yet. And it's another area actually where lots of industries are all faced with the same challenge. So when I said before, we can take an idea from one industry and use it in another, that's a perfect example where six or seven different industries actually are faced with exactly the same challenge, and therefore they're all starting to look in similar areas. There's a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas.

How difficult will it be for industries to move away from microplastic-producing technology?

I think it is challenging. And I think part of the reason is that the EU regulations are saying you can move away from microplastics if you can find something that is a natural polymer or a biodegradable polymer to replace them with. So that leaves open the question of definitions. What counts as natural, and what counts as biodegradable? What standards are you using for biodegradability? And that's where the uncertainty lies. There are lots of technologies out there. Certainly, there are biodegradable materials out there, but do they give you the performance in the application with the right cost-effectiveness?

So I think that's where the challenge is. It's not finding materials; there are dozens of materials out there. But can you get the performance and the cost-effectiveness you want, and within regulations, is really the open question.

Are there any particularly exciting formulation development examples you can give us that you are working on?  

I mentioned microplastics and renewable materials, and sustainable raw materials. That's certainly one area. I would say that, for us, another really big hot topic is how to formulate biology. A lot of formulators in the industries that I've talked about have grown up formulating chemicals and formulating chemistry. But if you look at what those industries are doing now, a lot of the materials that are being used are biological or biologically derived.

A really good example of that is agriculture, where the really interesting new active ingredients for crop protection or biostimulants are now living microbes. As a formulator, you are no longer formulating a dead chemical, you are formulating a live microorganism. And that's really, really interesting and very challenging.

So I would say for us, a really big growth area at the moment is formulating biology. How do you keep an organism alive during manufacture, storage, and use but not too alive so that it grows all over the place? You have got to keep it viable over a long period of time and not kill it off. And that's really challenging, especially when the industry is thought of in terms of chemicals rather than biology.

About Dr. Jim Bullock 

Dr. Jim Bullock is co-founder and director of iFormulate Ltd, which was founded in 2012. After a D.Phil from Oxford, Jim led R&D projects in imaging at Ilford Ltd and activities on crystal engineering and dye formulation and chemistry at ICI/Zeneca. At BASF, in UK and Germany, Jim headed formulation development for colours and then held marketing, strategy, R&D and regulatory affairs functions for BASF’s global biocides business. Jim was also a board director of Agion Technologies, USA and served as CEO of Intelligent Formulation Ltd, which promoted formulation technology in the UK.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Skyla Baily

Written by

Skyla Baily

Skyla graduated from the University of Manchester with a BSocSc Hons in Social Anthropology. During her studies, Skyla worked as a research assistant, collaborating with a team of academics, and won a social engagement prize for her dissertation. With prior experience in writing and editing, Skyla joined the editorial team at AZoNetwork in the year after her graduation. Outside of work, Skyla’s interests include snowboarding, in which she used to compete internationally, and spending time discovering the bars, restaurants and activities Manchester has to offer!

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