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Industrial Biotech and the post-COVID-19 world

By Simon Trancart, CEO and Founder of ALTAR, and Sancha Salgueiro, CEO at Chart Biotechnology.

What are we learning about resilience of our economic models?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus the fragility of what we used to take for securely granted in our past “normal lives”. The vulnerability of the global supply chains was laid bare in the past months, displaying the challenges of access to raw materials and manufacturing capacity, when factories and whole economies are forced into lockdown.

In building the new global networks for sourcing, exploitation and transformation of raw materials of the post 2020 pandemic world, we hopefully will include better preparedness for future pandemics. Global economic recovery will depend on cooperation:  “Now that we understand the crisis better, there should also be an understanding that the only way to deal with it effectively is through cooperation.(…) If you assist other countries, it’s not just out of compassion. It’s self-interest. As long as the epidemic spreads anywhere, it endangers everybody. (1)”

As for a viral pandemic, the consequences of climate change will spread rapidly, and its effects will not be contained in the geographic areas to be first severely impacted. The same philosophy for cooperation needs to apply to addressing the climate crisis.

Autonomy, sustainable self-sufficiency at various levels of the society – family, corporations, countries – has gained new prominence as a strategy for a resilient future. “Re-starting” the global economy, will hopefully take into account “the need to find a new approach to globalised retail chains and a balance between local and global trade based on international cooperation across global value chains rather than implementation of trade protectionist measures(2)”.

It would be desirable to create a balance between structures that support self-sufficiency, with the ability to respond fast locally, and global support networks that allow for information sharing and effort coordination of global threats. Supporting bio-based production of essential goods, with sustainable access to raw materials will improve the global ability to create more resilient supply chains, and more flexible production processes, that can be easily shifted to respond to emergency needs.

A stronger role for ‘Industrial Biotechnology’?

Before COVID-19 forced us to stop, changes towards implementing sustainable practices were perceived as too disruptive and not compatible with the short-term vision of sustained economic growth. The current pandemic crisis has opened a debate about what is most important to preserve in the long-term. At the beginning of 2020, nobody would have believed the statements about the importance of building sustainability in society and in business that have been made in these last two months by representatives of governments, powerful companies and financial organisations. The public opinion also seems to have evolved rapidly. We need now to move from words to deeds.

For many years, companies active within Industrial Biotechnology have been struggling to finance their projects in a world where support for sustainable production was conditioned to economic competitiveness with fossil based processes, in a context of uncertainty due to oil price volatility and unfairness because of the massive and increasing subsidies to the oil & gas industry ($5.2 trillion in 2017, corresponding to 6.5% of global GDP) (3). In the current situation, opportunities to advance those projects, and to address head-on the insufficiencies and obstacles that had been holding back the implementation of bio-based processes need to be embraced.

The world now has a chance to implement industrial practices that will build a more sustainable global economy. Now could be the time to fast-forward the plans for circular and bio-based processes and products, to build industry standards that will help in creating success.

Industrial Biotechnology would have an important role to play if new impetus is given to programs such as the European Green Deal. Despite the challenging times, there are very promising signs for a stronger bio-based economy. Several synthetic biology companies have notably successfully closed financing rounds in the past couple of months: Nature’s Fynd raised $80 million in a series B, EnginZyme raised € 6.4 million in a series A in April, Conagen received a $30 million investment from the chemical company Sumitomo and Pivot Bio raised $100 million in a series C.

Some companies serving this industry have maintained full business capacity even in lockdown mode, thanks to the high level of automation of their technological platform. An example of this is the French company ALTAR, that designs, constructs and operates automated cultivation devices used in research and development projects to obtain microbial strains fulfilling the requirements for bioindustrial applications. During the past months under lock-down, the company was able to maintain operations. Thus, in a recently published article in IbioIC’s May Newsletter, “(…) We are lucky because the high level of autonomy of our equipment enabled us to continue all on-going experiments, with human intervention limited to a minimal requirement. We had to reorganise our working habits, working from home most of the time. We devoted time to modifying our procedures to ensure uninterrupted 24/7 operation of our devices and maintaining the quality level. This (practice) will certainly benefit our business when we will eventually be able to return to our normal operation” (4).

So, with investors seeing the potential, and the opportunity and technology available to enable operations with a high level of autonomy, what may still hold back Industrial Biotech from delivering on its promises?

Improving predictability of outcomes, by building an integrated, efficient and competitive supply chain for bio-based products, and by enhancing the accessibility of the industry, both commercially and to the general public has been identified by industry peers (5) as one of the requirements for its growth. The proliferation of competing tools and the tendency towards protection are further barriers to adoption of bio-processes.

The lack of standardisation in the bioindustry means that data and processes are kept in silos, resulting in “bespoke solutions being developed for every product, which increases costs, lowers throughput and is a threat to quality” (5). The trend for outsourcing of certain R&D and industrialisation activities is growing as the industry matures. This trend will certainly help in the emergence and adoption of industry standards. Companies such as ALTAR are inserted in this industry dynamics. Growing automation and adoption of industry standards will be important in demonstrating industry maturity, which in turn should encourage continuing investment in companies active in Industrial Biology.

The outsourcing of non-core activities, together with automation throughout the whole development cycle from R&D to production, also enables human resources flexibility. People can dedicate more time to work on tasks they like and they are skilled at. This contributes at reaching personal feeling of self-achievement, increasing one’s own sense of worth, while providing stability and higher added value to the company that employs them, and eventually to the society.

Autonomous and resilient supply chains and manufacturing operations will benefit globally, removing current tensions caused by a system that is linear, generates waste that accumulates and consumes resources faster than they can be replaced. A silo industry has shown its weaknesses. Recent trends towards outsourcing certain activity which can be operated automatically at distance – will this lead to a reconfiguring and success stories in industrial biotech?

For more information about the topics raised in this article, please contact Sancha Salgueiro on sancha@chartbio.eu or Simon Trancart on simon.trancart@altar.bio

References:

  1. https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/why-inclusive-circular-economy-needed-prepare-future-global-crises
  2. Yuval Harari The Times of Israel, April 2020.
  3. IMF.org
  4. Simon Trancart – IBIOIC Newsletter May 2020 https://ibioic-publications.com/responding-to-covid-database/altars-automated-systems-help-them-adapt-to-lockdown-restrictions
  5. Cambridge Consultants report, 2018 – https://www.cambridgeconsultants.com/press-releases/building-business-biodesign

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