By Lucie McMurtry, Industrial Biotechnology Officer at EuropaBio
“What is the use of innovation if it cannot be implemented? And how can we efficiently implement innovation?” These were some of the central questions posed at the EFIB, Europe’s leading event on Industrial Biotechnology and the Bioeconomy, organised by EuropaBio, which brought together the Industrial Biotechnology community for the first time since the start of the pandemic this October in Vienna, Austria.
To begin …what is Industrial Biotechnology?
Biotechnology involves the use of living systems or organisms to make or develop products. The oldest uses of biotechnology are thousands of years old, using yeasts to make alcohol like beer or wine, and bacteria to process milk into dairy products like cheese or yogurt. We later learned how to use these natural processes to make different products of interest, leading to the development of the sector of industrial biotechnology.
Industrial biotechnology uses microorganisms to make biobased products from renewable raw materials in sectors such as chemicals, food and feed, detergents, paper and pulp, textiles, and bioenergy.
The manufacture of Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) is a good example of industrial biotechnology and of its benefits. Riboflavin is an essential vitamin which humans and animals cannot synthesise and so need to access through their diet. Manufactured riboflavin is used in a variety of applications, including food and feeds, pharmaceuticals and as a food colouring.
Commercial riboflavin was previously produced almost exclusively by a complex, multi-step chemical synthesis, with low yield and the use of hazardous agents. However, over the last 15 years, production has shifted towards a single step biotechnological production process, with numerous environmental benefits: the process has resulted in 70% reduction in fossil raw materials, 65% reduction in wastewater, and 50% reduction in exhaust emissions.
Today, almost all vitamin B2 used for human nutrition and health applications as well as in animal feed is produced biotechnologically.
How can innovation be efficiently implemented?
The EFIB community explored new innovations in products and technologies including alternative proteins, bio-based textiles, and novel bioreactor and fermentation processes, as well as the hurdles along the path to market: difficulties in scaling up, financial support gaps, regulatory challenges or lack of consumer acceptance or interest.
And therein lies the central question: how can innovation be efficiently implemented? A key message of EFIB was that communication around new products and technologies is as vitally important as technological breakthroughs. Science does not exist in a silo and so increasing consumer and policymaker understanding of products, technologies and the sector as a whole will support both market pull for new products and an enabling policy landscape.
Industrial biotechnology has much to offer towards EU Green Deal ambitions as well as the UN Sustainable Development Goals. But as a sector, it is less well-known than healthcare biotechnology, which shot to public awareness in the past year with the mRNA based COVID vaccines. Some breakthroughs –genome editing technologies like CRISPR , cultivated meat and alternative proteins – are slowly permeating consumer awareness. Others, like the vitamin B2 biotechnological production shift, are virtually unknown outside of the sector, despite the numerous environmental benefits.
These have of course supported the increasing market share of biotechnologically produced vitamin B2. But benefits alone won’t be enough without buy-in: the most innovative product will have no benefit if consumers do not want it. Consumer awareness of biotechnological alternatives in sectors like food and feed, biomaterials, or chemicals, can therefore drive the adoption of more sustainable products and processes, ultimately supporting the implementation of innovation.
Some of the latest innovations in industrial biotechnology may sound more like science fiction than reality: using biotechnology to produce spider silk for applications in healthcare or as a novel biomaterial. Consumer interest is opening the door to these ideas, but it’s consumer awareness and acceptance that will welcome them onto the market. Additional factors, like an enabling policy environment and support to bridge technological or financial gaps, such as pilot plants for scaling up solutions, also contribute to the speed and success of the path to market.
What the future holds for industrial biotechnology
So how can we best implement innovation?
Bringing biotechnology solutions and products to consumers is challenging if both parties do not speak the same language. For these innovations to become widely accepted by the general public, we need to communicate the science through appealing stories and an easily understood narrative. For example, EuropaBio this year celebrates its 25th anniversary and chose to mark this occasion by showcasing key scientific and business advances that have impacted people and the planet.
Be the best option
To gain consumer acceptance, bio-based products designed as drop-in solutions (i.e. alternatives to existing products) must either meet or even better – exceed – the efficacy of existing products and materials. Products with new functionalities must satisfy consumer demands, and, in the context of the green transition, it is also important to respond to climate challenges by offering solutions that benefit consumers in addition to being sustainable and environmentally friendly.
To conclude …
It’s a process, change always takes time. At EuropaBio we believe that EFIB, which is organised in different European countries every year, contributes not only to the better dialogue between stakeholders, but also sheds light on the sector at the national level. Lithuania has a thriving life sciences sector and is rapidly becoming a European biotechnology hotspot thanks to its commitment to investing in biotechnology for the future. EFIB 2022 therefore heads to Vilnius and will be organized with the support of Go Vilnius, Enterprise Lithuania, and the Lithuanian Biotechnology Association.