Britain’s biotech boom

Posted on 11 Mar 2013

Industrial biotechnology is growing, creating new jobs and radically altering expectations about the world’s ability to move away from fossil fuel reliance. Tom Moore explores the brave new world of biomaterials.

As the world seeks to wean itself off fossil fuel, there has been a frantic search for alternative solutions. New technology often creates a wave of excitement, shortly followed by a period of disappointment that the hype didn’t manifest as we’d imagined.

The application of biotechnology for industrial needs is already worth £4bn to the UK economy. It is applied in a broad range of everyday activities, with enzymes used to break down long chains of starch to reduce the time needed to bake bread and reduce the temperature at which we wash our clothes.

Industrial biotech is revolutionising the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors, slashing CO2 and discovering new materials for innovative products.

The chemistry allows manufacturers and consumers to do more with less, but the Government’s prediction that the global market for industrial biotech will reach £150 billion by 2025 is also based on its power to replace materials deriving from oil.

The UK has set a target to take a £12 billion slice of the global pie through the creation of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Growth Team. It has also set up a £12 million demonstrator facility in Wilton, Wiltshire.

The National Industrial Biotechnology Facility in Wiltshire
The National Industrial Biotechnology Facility in Wiltshire

The incredible seven

Business Minister Michael Fallon has set up a £140m pot for biotech and six other technologies.

While speaking at a recent event, Leading IB: A UK Showcase, Mr Fallon described how industrial biotech is “opening up new opportunities for products that were not possible to make using conventional chemistry.”

The minister added that “the UK’s success in harnessing industrial biotech is key to future of a better balanced, more sustainable manufacturing base.”

Ian Fortheringam, CEO and co founder of biotech firm Ingenza, noted that “predictability in fermentation scale-up is a major hurdle.” Butdespite these obstacles big companies are investing and start-ups emerging.

In the face of challenges to this modern sector Ian Shott, chair of Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum says, “there is a new industrialisation based on biotechnology.”

With a large amount of innovation stemming from new materials, industrial biotech isn’t an isolated sector of growth but a technology that will undoubtedly feed through the whole of industry.

Mr Fallon declared that “the development of industrial biotech across chemicals sector can enable the transition from a petroleum based economy to a bio based economy.” Let’s hope he’s right.

Centre for Process Innovation
Centre for Process Innovation

Green dreams

Biotechnology isn’t just potential, it’s a reality. Tyre manufacturer Goodyear has developed a process to manufacture an alternative to petroleum-based isoprene, which consumes seven gallons of crude oil for each gallon of isoprene, with US industrial biotech firm Genencor.

With 800,000 tonnes of isoprene used every year, over 70% of which is used to make rubber tyres, a car’s carbon footprint is sky high before you even turn on the engine. Genencor uses a variety of feedstocks (such as sugar) to mix with enzymes that ferment to create bioisoprene.

“Harnessing industrial biotech is key to future of a better balanced, more sustainable manufacturing base”Michael Fallon, Business Minister

High yield protein production fermentation at Fujifilm's biotech site in Durham can potential reduce the cost of goods
High yield protein production fermentation at Fujifilm's biotech site in Durham can potential reduce the cost of goods

Goodyear will swap this with isoprene for all tyre production in 2015, slashing its use of petroleum-based materials. According to the EU’s advisory group for bio-based products, one third of chemicals will be produced from plants and food rather than petro-chemical feedstocks by 2030.

But there are huge risks as well. Sir Jonathon Porritt CBE, author of the report Sustainable Returns Industrial: Biotechnology Done Well, says that “The food versus fuel debate around first generation biofuels is as alive and current as ever and fears about GM are never far away.”

Sir Jonathon argues that for the UK to be at the forefront of Industrial Biotechnology, “companies should be more open about how their products are made,” so that bio technology isn’t smeared with a brush of fear.

Europe already holds the leading position in the development and production of enzymes (with Denmark out in front), and is strong in biochemicals and some biopolymers. However, countries are tussling to get ahead in the bio race. With the aim of creating green jobs, the US Department of Energy has committed more than $1.5 billion (£960 million) for commercial-scale bio-refinery demonstration projects. Brazil and China have similar investment programmes. But despite this, the lure of British scientists is tempting huge investment from companies. Pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline has invested £500 million in a new biomanufacturing facility in Cumbria and other companies in the sector are creating new drugs (such as Dr Reddy’s) at a time when drug patents are expiring.

Biotech could reduce the amount of destruction caused oil exploration
Biotech could reduce the amount of destruction caused oil exploration

Vanity fair

The pharmaceutical sector is leading the way, with Viagra held up by Pfizer for its green credentials after it created a new reaction process that cut out a number of polluting materials and reduced waste by 75%. Enzymes and other biological organisms can perform industrial processes with significantly less energy, without the use of aggressive chemicals and with less waste, compared with traditional manufacturing systems.

Industrial biotech doesn’t only replace oil-based chemicals but can create new possibilities. Yorkshire-based chemicals group Croda, which also has a large factory in Cheshire, has undertaken an ambitious series of acquisitions to boost the impact of biotechnology on its business.

“Over 10% of raw materials are now bio-based,” says Dr Surinder Chahal, research and technology director at Croda. Dr Chahal says that there is a behaviour change among consumers to become carbon neutral.

The company’s hair softeners and skin lightening and moisturising products sit within a booming marketplace as more of the world’s population gain disposable income to spend on vanity products. One market research firm reported that sales of skin lightening creams have outstripped those of Coca-Cola in India as people try to replicate the look of Bollywood stars.

O.D.A.white, produced by Croda’s subsidiary Sederma, transforms vegetable acid into dioic acid, a main ingredient for lightening skin. Croda has set up chemical farms where it “cultures plant cells so that it doesn’t take up farmland,” such as natural proteins that make peptides for hair conditioner.

Biotechnology can extract value from something with no value. When you drink a litre of orange juice there is an equivalent volume of waste. Dr Mark Gronnow, process development manager at the Biorenewables Development Centre, has helped to create a process to extract value out of orange peel. After sending microwaves though it (and this even works on a small scale with a conventional microwave), the resulting liquid contains limonene and a-terpineol. What are these? Some of the gobbledegook ingredients listed on the back of perfumes, cosmetics and cleaners.

Biome Bioplastics, which makes polymer from potatoes in the UK, is one of a number of companies making green plastic. Although manufacturers are tentative in using the material in expensive machines, the early signs are that biopolymer does no damage.

With rising oil prices and pressing environmental concerns, Biome Bioplastics’ CEO Paul Mines says that manufacturers are increasingly seeking viable natural alternatives. “Modern bioplastics can already be used in a wide range of sometimes-surprising applications, from phone cases to flags and packaging, but with emerging technologies we can take this even further.”