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Continuing to push forward on our technology roadmap


Geert Olbrechts was appointed Umicore’s Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President of the new Business Group Specialty Materials in August 2023. Here Geert talks to us about his new role, the achievements he’s most proud of over the past year and the next steps for Umicore in its strategic journey ahead.

"Central values for me are to create a caring, innovation culture built on trust and true collaboration. Because in the end, it's our people that make the difference."

Geert Olbrechts, Chief Technology Officer & EVP of Specialty Materials

Tell us about yourself and how you came to be at Umicore.

I’m a Belgian by nationality and a chemist by education. I hold a PhD in chemistry and an executive MBA with a Masters in Innovation Management. I started at Umicore straight after my PhD, more than 23 years ago.

My first assignment was in the corporate research and development department or “CRD” in Olen, Belgium. That’s also where I have my office today. So, you could say I’ve come circle. Of course, during those 23 years I have worked on different projects and in various business units. A few defining roles in my career have been my time in Precious Metals Refining in Hoboken, where I designed, coengineered and became the operational manager for a key project. Then the expatriation to Germany to work in the Automotive Catalysts Business Unit where I held various roles finishing with Senior Vice President of R&D and Supply before accepting my current position as CTO & EVP of Specialty Materials. Throughout the years I’ve worked in various functions from business unit to corporate and in different countries, gaining a good overview of the business.

Tell us about your role as the newly created Chief Technology Officer & EVP of Umicore’s newly added fourth Business Group?

I started as CTO and EVP in August 2023. My motto for the first months was to “listen and learn”. I’ve visited our CRD site in Olen, and our Umicore Battery Materials sites in Olen and Korea. While in Asia, I also visited our new CRD Innovation Center in Shanghai, officially opening in 2025, and the customer R&D teams in Japan to hear the voice of our customers. Next to that, I was also on a learning journey, with deep-dives into the most important Umicore projects, their challenges and opportunities. What I find crucial in my role is to ensure that we have no gaps in our technology portfolio and this actually means three key factors for me:

  • Striking the right balance in our innovation portfolio, with short- midand long-term projects.
  • Staffing for success and ensuring an innovation culture in which colleagues are recognized for their achievements, and in which there is a climate of trust and true collaboration.
  • Building a broad ecosystem by representing Umicore at conferences, interacting with customers, with academia, with investors. This way, I stay informed of new technology trends and customer needs, which allows us to define the right innovation strategy including partnerships going forward. At the same time, I can keep the outside world informed about our technological advances thereby re-enforcing the Umicore technology brand.

Next to the CTO role, I’m also EVP of our new Business. Specialty Materials specializes in developing, manufacturing and distributing non-ferrous metal-based materials used in high-end applications. Three business units are clustered under this Business Group: Electro-optical materials that has a cluster of products centered around germanium, which is key for optical fibers, solar cells for space applications and infrared optics; Metal deposition solutions does electro-plating for jewelry, smartphones and coatings for optics; and Cobalt and specialty materials, which is specialized in developing, manufacturing and distributing a wide range of nickel and cobalt containing products that go both in industrial applications such as catalysts and in consumer goods such as tires, ceramics, paints and drills. This clustering into a new Business Group provides them the attention and focus required to meet the 2030 RISE objectives. With this new Business Group we can really nurture the growth and maximize the value of these activities. The main focus of my EVP role since I started was to learn about the businesses, to meet and exchange with colleagues, and to understand their challenges and how I could help them to be even more successful. To this end, I visited many sites last year just to understand our activities, interact with the management teams as well as the colleagues.

What’s an average day for you?

Average day? Every day is a surprise. I typically start work at around 8:00 in the morning and I finish between 6:00 and 7:00 in the evening. I have a lot of meetings all day, but I still reserve time for colleagues, as those informal conversations are helpful to pick up on what is ongoing in the organization.

What kind of leader are you?

Ensuring a caring and innovation culture in which colleagues can really shine and be successful in their own right is very important to me. This is where I believe leaders can make the most difference. If we engage with our colleagues, create common goals, inspire and motivate them we can really excel. For me it’s part of Umicore’s DNA today and we need to ensure that we protect and further cultivate it. Yet it’s equally important to remove any roadblocks preventing progress and allow colleagues to work autonomously developing their own projects in the way they see fit. Central values for me are to create a caring, innovation culture built on trust and true collaboration. Because in the end, it’s our people that make the difference.

"What I find crucial in my role is to ensure that we have no gaps in our technology portfolio.”

Geert Olbrechts, Chief Technology Officer & Executive Vice President of Specialty Materials

What makes Umicore an innovation & technology leader?

It’s got to be our focus on transforming non-ferrous metals into functional materials and the many years experience combining material science, metallurgy and chemistry, which are at the core of everything we do. We’re not a startup, nor a university with a great idea and a few grams of products. We can make the grams, but we can also make the kilograms and the tonnes. So, it’s that scaling of elements that is unique to Umicore. Our connection to the wider ecosystem keeps us on top of the latest trends while good connections with our end-customer mean we are well positioned in the value chain as a unique partner. We also have a good track record of delivering on our promises. When Umicore says we will do something we do it. We don’t announce an empty shell.

What achievements are you most proud of this last year?

Hearing from our customers that we had great products and excellent colleagues is always a boost. Opening the Research Innovation Center in China is definitely a key milestone and one that I’m really proud of as it’s Umicore’s first real R&D innovation centre in China. We had Applied Technology Centres for different applications and business units in China, but not a real R&D center, until now. Overall, I’m proud of the progress we’ve made on the objectives of our 2030 RISE Strategy especially during these challenging times.

What three words would you use to sum up Umicore’s 2023?

Definitely, “roller coaster” as it’s been quite the ride for me personally this past year. Then I would say energizing. Throughout this transition phase it’s been “energizing” to see everything we have available and can do, and how strong our teams and our organization are in general. Challenging is another word I would use to describe 2023. Challenging in the sense of combining the growth mindset with an efficiency mindset so that we can make the excellent progress we are making and need to continue making to meet our strategic objectives under our 2030 RISE Strategy.

What are the next steps for Umicore in it’s innovation strategy ahead?

Continuing to push forward on our big projects (e.g. battery recycling, battery anode, developing fuel cells, cathode materials for the next generation batteries such as solid-state and sodium-ion batteries).

What do you do in your spare time to relax and wind down from work?

I do sports in my spare time, particularly cycling. As a lot of Belgians, I like notching up a few kilometers on my race bike. I also like running though just to relax and stay fit, not to compete. And at the weekend when I have more time, I really enjoy cooking. My signature dish is a risotto with prawns and peas from Jamie Oliver’s “The Naked Chef” cookbook. It’s a real winner in our house and one that the whole family loves.