Today we stand on the precipice overlooking a new frontier — the century of biology, and businesses of all kinds need to be prepared to not only embrace what is coming, but have a strategy for how to leverage biology for the betterment of their businesses and the good of the planet.
This past August, Karl Schmieder, coauthor with John Cumbers, Ph.D., of What’s Your Bio Strategy? From Synthetic Biology to CRISPR – Why Your Industry Must Evolve or be Disrupted, sent me a copy of their not yet published book to preview. And when I finally had the opportunity to sit down and read it, my … mind … was … blown. Because though the authors interview 25 innovators about how biology is presently impacting a variety of industries, as well as what they think could happen in the very near future, it is even more telling to ponder what they haven’t thought of as being possible, which I found myself doing while reading. As I came across company names (pay attention to highlights) I pondered which might soon rival one of the three “As” of internet commerce (i.e., Alibaba, Alphabet [formerly Google], and Amazon) which have a combined value of about $1.6 trillion. The book discusses concepts such as using DNA for data storage or how the future of fashion may reside in garments being grown in vats (i.e., biofabrication) not woven on looms. There are companies discussed, such as Organovo, a groundbreaking tissue and organ printing company, which spawned another company, Modern Meadow, to design, grow, and assemble collagen to grow leather without using an animal. Mycelium, for years used as a food source, is being explored as a material, for when analyzed through the lens of material science, it’s like living glue or living plastic.
The following are excerpts from Cumbers and Schmieder’s book involving seven questions posed to seven innovators. And while this will give you a flavor for what to expect in the book, it really represents just the tip of the iceberg. If you want more you’ll have to order it, now available at Amazon. Enjoy.
1. How Do People Interact With Biotechnology On A Daily Basis?
Darlene Solomon, SVP and chief technology officer for Agilent Technologies: “Most people don’t realize they touch and benefit from bio-based or biologically-manufactured products every day. Textiles and plastic containers, the contact lens solution, and medicines are often either partially or entirely biologically-based or manufactured using biological production methods. Since it’s not on the label – and doesn’t have to be – it looks like the same product they’ve always purchased only it’s made with biotech.”
Later, Solomon is asked how she accounts for biotechnology’s significant contributions to global GDP. “Compared to traditional manufacturing, biological manufacturing can be more profitable. Many large chemical companies understand the potential of biology, though their efforts might still be relatively limited. In many cases they still need to overcome the perceived risk of these investments and ensure economic viability in the early stages.”
“Bio-manufacturing opens up new opportunities to create things that weren’t previously possible.
You can create novel materials that provide superior performance, while at the same time being sustainable and potentially more profitable. Companies that have been successful with biology can leverage their learnings and start thinking about how to take their knowledge to the next adjacent opportunity.”
“Europe has passed some meaningful legislation around new sustainability targets that I think will further drive bio-based manufacturing. Many companies will need to meet those mandates by 2020 which is in just a few years away.”
2. It’s Been Predicted That Biotechnology Will Have An Enormous Impact On Consumer Goods. Do You Agree?
J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), and cofounder of two biotech firms, Human Longevity and Synthetic Genomics (SGI): “It could be a big opportunity. I believe strongly in using science for the betterment of humanity. We should be striving for that first and foremost, whether it’s creating new kinds and sources of food, developing new energy sources, or creating a sustainable economy.”
“The big issues facing humanity can be solved with biology. We need to feed 9 to 10 billion people and provide energy and clean, potable water. We’re currently destroying our environment at an increasing pace. Biology stands to become the number one sustainable energy source in history.”
“At SGI, we’ve designed a nutritionally perfect protein from algae. It didn’t require much synthetic biology. The people working on it designed perfectly nutritious proteins with better flavorings. Companies like General Mills can take our algae-based protein, use their extrusion technologies and create textures like meat or chicken.”
“If we jump ahead 50 to 100 years, I see very little farming because agriculture is fundamentally anti-nature. I see biological factories producing foods. It’s more efficient and better for the environment.”
“SGI has worked with Exxon-Mobil to double the production of algal cells and produce bio-fuels. Unfortunately, interest in bio-fuels is fad driven. There is interest and funding. Then interest dies. Exxon is taking a longer view. They know they will run out of oil and they know they’ll need alternative fuel sources.”
“If you take a natural gas-fired power plant, collect the exhaust, and you run it through algae, you can capture a significant amount of the CO2. You can take that algae, harvest it, and burn it as fuel. Right now, this isn’t that efficient because we still have low-cost natural gas and fuels. But if governments were to impose a real carbon tax, it would eliminate coal, no matter how cheap it is. We could tax coal out of existence so that people would be forced to advance and use cleaner energy sources.”
“Water is one of the biggest problems in the world. Biological systems could be engineered into natural filters and solve that problem. The Sorcerer expedition has been collecting plastic at sea. Instead of using a fishing net, we are using a “plankton” net because ocean plastic is being broken down until it’s invisible. At that stage of decomposition, it is much more harmful to the marine environment. Creating or selecting microbes that eat the plastic might take some thoughtful genetic engineering.
“Synthetic biology can deliver significant contributions to solve the issues that humanity faces. People want to fund groups to advance things faster. We need that funding to create a synthetic biology economy because it will provide successful solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. That’s where I’d like to see things go. The potential is there.”
“I started Synthetic Genomics as a virtual company to fund the Institute to make the synthetic cell and prove it was possible. But Synthetic Genomics was forced to become a real company, because so many people were interested in solving real problems. To create the solutions to humanity’s challenges and advance the field of synthetic biology, this needs to happen at 1,000 times the scale.”
3. How Is France Doing In Terms Of Synthetic Biology?
Pierre Monsan, Ph.D., a Toulouse-based serial entrepreneur and founding director of Toulouse White Biotechnology Incubator: “Basic research is progressing, but we need more of a business orientation. Our basic research is great. We’ve organized some great synthetic biology teams, but we need more technology transfers to industry.”
“Interestingly, Louis Pasteur started working on applied industrial and health problems, then he worked his way back to the basic science.”
“It’s great to see younger scientists who are more business-oriented and have fewer inhibitions than older scientists. A friend was working as a biochemist and found a microorganism that produced a blue dye. He went straight to Hermes to show them. Now we’re helping him figure out how to scale production. Another company I’m working with, Glowee, is working to eliminate city lights by creating plants that use the luciferase enzymes from marine organisms. They’re already working with NASA.”
“With synthetic biology, we dream to use cheap, available carbon sources to create valuable molecules. To do that, we need to better understand microorganisms and how they function. That will accelerate the breakthroughs.”
“I believe that over the next 20 years, our increase in knowledge will enable more applications. We’ll continue to use biotechnology as a technology in existing markets like agriculture, chemistry, food, and medicine, but I’m not sure we’ll also create new markets. The internet is a new market. Mobile is a new market. That said, DNA for data storage will be a new market. The ability of a company like Twist Bioscience to expand the use of DNA for data storage will open new fields.”
4. At What Point Do Most Of The Fortune 500 Companies Have Some Connection To Biotechnologies In The Broadest Sense Of The Word?
Rodrigo Martinez, chief marketing and design officer at Veritas Genetics: “I don’t think we’re there yet, but there are signs. Companies in the Fortune 500 are already using genetic algorithms. Some are producing dyes using biotech. Some might be using biological tools. On the other hand, we’re leapfrogging some of the steps that were needed to build the digital economy. Companies like Ginkgo Bioworks and Synthetic Genomics exist solely because the technology is available.”
“Today, even if less than one-tenth of Fortune 500 companies are using biotechnology, you see it spreading quickly. I’ve said this before, I think the term bioeconomy is becoming irrelevant. It might already be obsolete. It’s just the economy. The biological part of the economy — biotechnology, synthetic biology, the use of biology to create things without biotech — is becoming interspersed with everything. The economy is biology and biology is the economy.”
5. Do You Think The Rise Of The Computer Or IT Industry Hold Lessons For Consumer Applications Of Synthetic Biology?
Paul Freemont, Ph.D., head of the new Section of Structural Biology in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College, London, UK: “I think there are some. Every industry needs exemplars that people can look up to. For example, I’m enamored with Bolt Threads and their first product, the spider silk tie. They are a pioneering company that is moving the whole industry forward. They’re making the technology accessible to more people.”
“The pioneering interface space in synthetic biology will force innovation in really conservative industries. That is really important for the bio economy and the sustainability of the world. The next generation [of consumers] are very into sustainability.”
“The internet industry has, to an extent, shown the benefits of being open and transparent but we can do better. For example, I’d like to see more distributed biological manufacturing units producing products related to local needs. That would be an amazing way to manufacture things, particularly materials. I love the example of the microbrewery industry. It has exploded not just in the United States, but all over the world. The technology that makes that possible – fermentation – is ripe for innovation.”
“I’d like to see fermentation-based manufacturing everywhere so that people could produce products anywhere using local feedstocks. That way, synthetic biology could be easily dropped into the microbrewery infrastructure anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, we need the big stuff as well. We need the big commodity chemical companies to adopt biology. I’d like to see distributed biological manufacturing as a way of life.”
6. How Does Synthetic Biology Impact Supply Chains?
Christina Agapakis, creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks: “Supply chains are very complex. For example, for foods and fragrances, many ingredients come from agriculture. Farmers grow fields of flowers that are harvested. The flowers are pressed, oils extracted, and fragrances distilled.”
“Many other ingredients are also produced chemically starting with petroleum, and there is a growing number of products manufactured using fermentation or biocatalysis — products created from natural sources and enzymes. Synthetic biology can improve strains and enzymes to make those bio-catalyzed products more efficiently. You can start with fewer inputs to get the final output. Or you could design new strains to replace agriculturally- or petroleum-derived ingredients. That could stabilize the supply chain so you’re no longer dependent on growing cycles, protect yourself from price fluctuations, and increase sustainability.”
“Synthetic biology, depending on how it’s done, can be more sustainable and renewable. That’s the dream of having a bio-based economy – not just for flavors and fragrances – but for all other industries.”
“One of the things that still needs to be figured out is how to make synthetic biology more accessible. What will happen when costs go down further and more industries and products can use biotechnology? What will happen when biological manufacturing is available everywhere? Not just used by multinational corporations in the global North, but in other places, in their own context, to drive growth and change.”
7. Are The Technologies To Make Biological Manufacturing Maturing, And If So, What Are Some Examples?
Rob Carlson, author of Biology Is Technology: “Yes … Amyris, one of the first synthetic biology companies to emerge on the scene, started by focusing on mass-producing artemisinin to treat malaria. They expanded into biofuels, faced down several challenges, and came out of the bio-fuels hangover in a much better position – at least as far as their technical capabilities are concerned. The Amyris team was forced to develop many version 1.0 bioengineering tools.”
“Today, they have the experience and capability to roll out many projects, and their 2016 agreement with Ginkgo Bioworks shows that Amyris is interested in expanding access to their now-sophisticated manufacturing capacity. They have made a great deal of progress in being able to iterate design, build, and test by automating their engineering processes.”
“Through those years of development and learning, Amyris experienced a few bumps in the road, resulting in a diaspora of talented people who are now taking what they learned there to the next level.”
“Tim Gardner is a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology and a former employee of Amyris. There, he cobbled together their quality systems from whatever software was available at the time. He left and founded Riffyn to build a design studio and research and development platform from scratch. It’s a system that enables quality by design. The software dramatically improves reproducibility. It’s analogous to Six Sigma, the management techniques used across all manufacturing to improve business processes.”
“Riffyn is a Github for biological manufacturing processes. It allows easy version tracking of processes and lets companies or individuals take an R&D or manufacturing process that works in one place and transfer it to another. This helps address tech transfer hiccups that frequently crop up during mergers and acquisitions. For example, Roche recently eliminated Genentech’s manufacturing in South San Francisco and now has to enable that capability in other locations. R&D will still be conducted at Genentech HQ, but the manufacturing will be done elsewhere.”
“How do you communicate the manufacturing process from HQ to wherever the product will actually get made? Currently, that is all done manually for biotech products.”