Last week, as part of Cambridge Consultants’ Synthetic Biology initiative, James Hallinan and I attended the Commercialising Industrial Biotechnology conference in San Diego. This bi-annual meeting gathers together companies at the forefront of using biosynthesis to produce commercially viable products to identify challenges, share experience and promote collaboration. Just one of the major challenges that was the importance of selecting the right target to synthesise: to be competitive, new processes for existing products must have a 30% cost advantage, and new bio-products must have a 3-10x advantage in properties. The conference also frequently highlighted the difficulties of scaling up small scale lab-based processes into commercial scale production. Despite these headwinds, the tone of the conference was optimistic and determined, with an overriding belief that these challenges were being overcome.
Jim Lane, editor of the Biofuels Digest highlighted the current battle that the bio-economy faces against the barriers of fear, uncertainty and doubt which hold back investment and acceptance of these transformative technologies. He told attendees to use the same tactics to turn the argument around – for example, by leveraging the potential of the bio-economy to ease existing fears, uncertainties and doubts surrounding major world issues, such as feeding and fuelling an ever more populous world, or the amount of toxic, polluting processes that threaten human health and contribute to global warming. Jim also suggested that a key reason that the bio-economy has not yet made a bigger impact into markets is the length of the R&D processes required to get these products to launch. He suggested that companies need to “fail fast” to reduce risks, which ties in with our own approach to rapid product development.
One concept to come out of the conference that really stuck in my head was a curious benefit of using bio-based plastics. These polymers can be biosynthesised from sugars and starches that have been metabolised in plants, which can then be combined to create plastics with various properties, such as polyethylene. Such “green plastics” therefore contain carbon molecules captured from atmospheric CO2, as opposed to petroleum based plastics. The curious concept here is that by disposing of these green plastics via burying them in landfill, we are actually capturing carbon from the atmosphere. I love the idea of throwing my plastic packaging into the trash to help the environment!
At Cambridge Consultants we are currently exploring the use of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) – a class of biopolymers that are biosynthesised and also biodegradable and biosynthesised. PHAs are particularly interesting because there are many different monomers available and when you combine the different monomers into a polymer then you can tune the mechanical and physical properties over a very wide range. This may be one way to achieve the aims of cost reduction and improvements in function, and hence drive commercial success. All while helping the environment!