With the midterm elections in the rearview mirror, the lawmakers in Washington, DC, are focusing on the future: the topic of the conversation this week is how biomanufacturing could be a significant contributor to the strategic priorities of the US government, including supply chain security, supporting the rural economies, creating new jobs, and addressing climate change. Many of the issues that could be addressed with the help of synthetic biology require government-backed policies. This emphasizes the importance of legislators and technology leaders sitting together at the table.
This week Christophe Schilling, CEO of Genomatica (Geno for short), appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry to help steer policy initiatives that would further advance U.S. leadership in biomanufacturing, as well as support American farmers. The two main items on the docket were how the federal government can strengthen the USDA BioPreferred program by enforcing federal purchasing requirements for bio-based materials and help large-scale biomanufacturing projects through the Section 9003 Loan Guarantee program. The program guarantees up to $250 million assistance for the development of biorefineries and biobased product manufacturing facilities; but arguably the cap is too low for capital-intensive projects that are essential to scale domestic biomanufacturing.
Geno was one of the first biotechnology companies focusing on production of chemicals and materials. It was established in 2000, at the time when the primary driver of biomanufacturing was the production of biofuels to establish U.S. energy independence. But, as Christophe pointed out, the economics of biofuels production required extremely low process cost which was hard to achieve for the nascent field of synthetic biology: “You’re talking about going after the hardest thing first.” This led many companies, like Geno, to pivot from biofuels into the bulk and specialty chemicals space where the economic requirements of production were bit more relaxed.
Focusing on the right kinds of targets allowed Geno to establish itself as one of the first synthetic biology companies making financially viable products at scale. They currently have two commercial products: the first one is 1,4-Butanediol (BDO), which is licensed for production by an Italian company Novamont at a 30,000 tons per year scale. Geno has also just signed a licensing agreement with Cargill to scale its BDO process to 65,000 tons per year at a new production facility based in Eddyville, Iowa. The $300 million biomanufacturing plant is a joint venture by Cargill and HELM that will make bio-based materials using inputs like corn produced in America’s heartland and provide jobs throughout the region.
Geno’s second commercial product is Brontide®, a natural butylene glycol that carries the BioPreferred certification. This ingredient is used in many personal care products and has won the prestigious 2020 Green Chemistry Challenge Award given by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Companies that opt out for using Brontide in their products can reduce their carbon emissions by over 50% compared to using fossil fuel-based ingredients.
Both of Geno’s existing commercial products have large markets, which means that the impact of switching from petroleum to bio-based production can have a real impact on sustainability. Brontide, for example, has the potential to reduce global greenhouse gases by nearly 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, if implemented globally, and eliminate the use of 50,000 tons of acetaldehyde, a carcinogenic and mutagenic chemical used in conventional production methods.
The potential impact, along with scalability and economic profitability, are the main factors Geno looks at when selecting products to add to their portfolio. For example, Geno and Unilever
“When you look at the lifecycle assessments to understand carbon reduction, you have to think about the volume of [the market]. Nylon, for example, is the $22 billion a year industry. If you’re having substantial reductions in just that industry, the carbon savings are significant,” commented Sasha Calder, Head of Impact at Geno.
Process development efforts for bio-nylon are well underway. This summer Geno together with its longtime collaborator Aquafil completed the first demo scale production runs of several tons of plant-based nylon. The manufactured demo material is used to create showcase goods and get feedback with customers before scaling up to become Geno’s third commercial product. Global brands and value chain partners are equally eager to onboard the renewable drop-in alternative, with the first brand partner lululemon announcing last summer that it wants to replace the petroleum-derived nylon in its athletic apparel.
Nylon is used in so many products. Even American flags are made from nylon. With the current administration pushing for more bio-based products, plant-based nylon could be a green solution for the thousands of flags purchased annually by the U.S. government: “The government is the largest purchaser of products,” said Christophe. What that means for the industry is that influencing government policy when it comes to sourcing materials for those products is an effective way to advance the manufacturing capacity of synthetic biology.
The U.S. government already has programs in place to protect domestic manufacturing. For example, there have been several proposals to ensure that all federally purchased American flags are U.S.-made. The Department of Defense is already required to buy 100% American-made flags, and those must contain at least 50% American materials. If the federal government strengthened its BioPreferred program to enforce the use of biomanufactured products, those flags could be made from all-American Iowa-grown corn.
“Many of the feedstocks that we’re exploring here in the U.S. come from the corn belts of the Midwest, and so our policy program has been really focused at working with representatives from those states,” said Sasha.
At the U.S. Senate Committee hearing on Tuesday, Geno’s CEO voiced some of the industry perspectives and made recommendations on how the government could offer stronger backing for building resilient supply chains here the U.S. For instance, the loan guarantee program could be strengthened by getting rid of the $250 million cap. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has a similar initiative for innovative clean energy programs, which does not have the cap and has helped tremendously in the development of large-scale capital-intensive sustainability projects. The second recommendation was to shorten the cycle review timeline down from 18 months. For the industry that is moving at light speed and racing against pressing issues like climate change, this is just too long to wait. And if progress is made faster, a carbon-neutral flag made with Iowa-grown corn could be flown over the White House in the not-so-distant future.
Thank you to Katia Tarasava for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about, such as Genomatica, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.