The chemical industry in Basel is undergoing a considerable transformation, and a new chapter started just yesterday after BASF, one of the largest chemical companies in the world, acquired Rolic, a small but highly specialised company based in Allschwil in the canton of Basel-Landschaft.
Rolic was founded in 1994 as a spin-off from Roche, which invented the basic technology behind liquid crystal displays. The name Rolic itself is an acronym of Roche Liquid Crystals. While most of the business was sold to the pharmaceutical giant Merck, Rolic developed a niche market out of reactive liquid crystals. These liquid crystals are oriented under polarised light and then chemically bonded to form a Light Controlled Molecular Orientation, which in turn increases the light efficiency, brilliance and sharpness of LCD screens or improves other optical devices. Rolic has 110 employees in Allschwil.
BASF, on the other hand, is one of the largest chemical producers in the world. It has a very broad portfolio, employs over 110,000 people worldwide and generates annual sales of EUR 70 billion. Its headquarters in Ludwigshafen alone boasts 39,000 employees and covers an area of 10 square kilometres.
In 2008, BASF acquired Ciba AG, a traditional chemical company from Basel. But the traditional chemical business is facing a number of difficulties, leading to job cuts in Basel and even an announcement last year that BASF would cancel the R&D department in Basel altogether, leading many to believe this was the end of chemical R&D in Basel. Not connected to Basel, but relevant in this context is the fact, that last year BASF sold the OLED patent portfolio – the basis for lighting by organic molecules – to Universal Display Corporation.
The acquisition of Rolic therefore represents a promising turnaround. Rolic will be integrated into BASF’s 900-person strong electronic materials division. It will strengthen the specialty sector not only with its patents, but also by bringing professionals from materials science and physics as well as chemical expertise. This marks the transformation from traditional chemical products towards highly specialised, tailor-made molecules where the emphasis is now on delivered performance per milligram, not price per kilogram.
Coincidentally, the Japanese company Idemitsu Kosan decided in January 2017 to open a new R&D facility in Basel to strengthen its OLED technology research, just the kind of technology BASF sold a complete patent portfolio a year ago. What interesting moves!
The chemical industry is undergoing considerable change and the success of new products can never be guaranteed. But it is encouraging to see that the Basel region and its old and new players are a part of this transformation.