For the past two decades, genetic engineering technologies have been optimized leading to fermentation processes that allow increased production capacities of more and more chemical compounds. By using the tiny machineries within microorganims, a growing number of innovative start-ups around the world are now sounding the bell for an industrial change. The following four are trying to dare the chemical industry.
The bio-based production of gaseous hydrocarbons, identical to those produced from fossil resources, is the key concept of french Global Bioenergies (GBE). Artifical metabolic pathways incorporated into microorganisms convert renewable resources into gaseous olefins – the chemical basis of fuels, plastics, organic glass, and elastomers. After the successful fermentation of isobutene and butadiene, a new proprietary microorganism can now convert sugar into propylene – another important chemical building block. Together, these three hydrocarbons make up a market totaling over 300 billion USD. In 2013, the „German Ministry for Education & Research“ granted 5.7 million EUR for the construction of a pilot plant to finalize the industrialization process of isobutene. A partnership with car manufacturer Audi targeting on the production of bio-sourced isooctane from bio-logical isobutene followed in 2014. Other chemical key compounds and their scale-up are in development, further licensing agreements should thus only be a matter of time. Currently, the on NYSE Alternext listed company is trading approx. 32 % below its all time high of 48.50 EUR.
Turn on Bio – Turn off pollution
That’s the motto of Italian Bio-on, founded 2007 and listed at AIM Italy since October 2014. Shortly after the IPO, the share price more than doubled to 10.30 EUR. The winner of the „EuropeBio Most innovative European Biotech SME Award 2014“ is focussed on one of the major problems of our modern society – synthetic plastics.
European forecasts expect the market of biodegradable plastic to grow from 1.4 million tonnes in 2012 to more than 6.0 million tonnes in 2017. "All of us share one mission: to work in the field of modern biotechnologies to create 100 % natural solutions based on renewable resources or agricultural waste“, says Marco Astorri, CEO and co-founder.
As synthetic plastic is non-degradable, it can be found almost everywhere with already negative effects on our biosphere. Bio-on’s solution to the plastic mania: MINERV PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoates) – linear polyesters that are metabolic products of special bacteria nourished by sugar beet juices from agricultural wastes.
Depending on the amount of monomers, PHA can subsitute many conventional plastics but in contrast to them it is biodegradable in both water and soil. The fermentation process is currently scaled-up to industrial amounts. But watch out! Neither Bio-on nor GBE are profitable yet.
Ancient but far from old-fashioned
Simultaneously reduce carbon emissions and produce sustainable biofuel and other chemicals. What sounds fanciful is the mission of the hottest company 2014 in industrial biotech. "LanzaTech is commercializing a revolutionary technology, which challenges how the world thinks about waste carbon: treating it as an opportunity instead of a liability“, comments CEO Jennifer Holmgren. Founded 2005 in New Zealand, LanzaTech is now headquartered in Chicago (USA). Its gas-to-liquid platform uses proprietary microbes called acetogens – one of the oldest lifes on earth – to ferment carbon rich waste gases, such as those from industrial flue stacks, producing liquid fuels and chemicals as they grow. The gas fermentation process and its industrialization has been supported by more than 150 million USD venture capital – only lately a 60 million USD investment by the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.
"A platform that can produce sustainable food and fuels economically and at scale turns the issue of food vs fuels on its head", states Holmgren with a view to the latest project, a cooperation with the IOC-DBT Center for Advanced Bio-Energy Research. The microbial process is able to produce omega-3 rich fatty acids from CO2.
An eagerly awaited technology
Privately held Biosyntia, a spin-off of the University of Denmark and runner-up of the „EuropeBio Most innovative European Biotech SME Award 2014“, is still in its infancy. Since its foundation, the company has primarily being funded through European grants but is currently in talks with undisclosed investors, tells us founding member Hans Jasper Genee.
Global player Novozymes is convinced: Biosyntia’s RIBOSELECT™ is what the biotech industry has wanted for more than 40 years. The high-throughput enzyme screening technology is used to develop and optimize so-called cell factories. Based on microorganisms like E. coli and yeast, cell factories could be able to produce many fine chemical products (food ingredients, fragrances, colours, pharmaceuticals) in the future.
"Our business model is licensing compound customized cell factories equipped with the necessary enzymes and pathways to manufacturers“, states Genee. Considering the 80 % less productions costs and the substantially reduced environmental impact – cell factories could indeed bear the potential to revolutionize chemical production.
Which of these cutting-edge technologies will be able to create the biggest return on investment is currently unknown. True is, however, the market potential for sustainable technologies is growing and the EU has recognized the potential as well – since market analyses have estimated the European market to grow from 28 billion EUR in 2013 to 41 billion EUR in 2020, and 52 billion EUR in 2030.
Between 2014 and 2024, the EU is going to inject 3.7 billion EUR to increase the market maturity and create a competitive environment for bio-based products across different industries.