During a speech in 1963, John F. Kennedy famously said, “A rising tide lifts all the boats,” asserting that progress in a given situation benefits everyone involved. Heather O’Keefe, senior regional strategy manager at Novozymes, a world leader in biosolutions, agrees with this sentiment. “Together, we can make a bigger impact. Whether it’s industry, consumers or the environment, we truly live in a complex ecosystem where the linchpin is collaboration.”
That complex ecosystem is bioindustrial manufacturing, which uses live organisms or active biomolecules to produce goods at scale. Novozymes is focused on solving big and interconnected global challenges, such as climate change and broken food systems.
To help achieve its mission, Novozymes is a member of BioMADE (St. Paul, Minn.), a collaborative effort among private and public entities supported in part by a $87 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The group’s mandate is to drive sustainable bioindustrial manufacturing innovation, education and collaboration to transform American manufacturing.
Advances in biological sciences, combined with the accelerating development of computing, data processing and artificial intelligence (AI), are fueling a wave of innovation across the agriculture, healthcare, energy and consumer goods sectors, according to McKinsey Global Institute’s 2020 report, “The Bio Revolution.” The potential global economic impact of biomanufacturing is estimated at $2 trillion to $4 trillion from 2030-2040, the study states. BioMADE and its members are poised to realize this potential.
While Douglas Friedman was working as executive director of the Emeryville, Calif.-based Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC), he saw a significant challenge facing U.S. biomanufacturing. “Between 2016 and 2019, it became overwhelmingly obvious that scaling was a major challenge,” asserts Friedman. “If the U.S. was going to be competitive in this manufacturing industry, it really was going to have to focus on the scale-up question.” That barrier, he says, formed the basis of BioMADE, where Friedman now serves as CEO.
“A lot of people in our field have been working on this for a while, and what’s exciting now is that the U.S. government has noticed there’s a real opportunity here and we can actually do something with it,” Friedman explains.
At the heart of BioMADE’s mission is to be a bridge between early innovation and commercial viability. Ultimately, the success of this endeavor rests on the transformation of research outcomes into chemicals and materials that can stand on their own in the market.
The advent of new renewable products, enabled by the mastery of biological engineering, heralds a transformative era. BioMADE steps into this unfolding narrative as a conduit between emerging firms wielding cutting-edge expertise and established industry giants that are able to orchestrate the production of compounds and materials on an unprecedented scale.
Melanie Tomczak, BioMADE’s chief technology officer, says her role is to bring together diverse members to help solve technical challenges. The work is paying off.
“Teaming a large industry member, like Minnesota-based Cargill, with a university or small business to really solve those technical challenges is part of our success,” Tomczak says. “A small startup may lack the resources necessary to completely commercialize an idea. However, by collaborating with other ecosystem participants, they might begin to advance a technology and eventually drive it closer to commercialization.”
She explains that part of the strategy is to determine what technologies are ready for the next level. “We’ve had a couple of small businesses that, because of their BioMADE funding, their process was moved along to be much further in maturation. And then some large companies have come in and signed joint development agreements with these small businesses,” Tomczak says, emphasizing the excitement involved in helping to affect such change.
Friedman agrees. “The technology development lead by Dr. Tomczak’s program really supports the ability to bring down the cost of goods sold, which is critical to the industry,” he says.
Multifaceted projects underscore BioMADE’s holistic approach to not only advance the technical aspects of bioindustrial manufacturing but also cultivate a capable, conscientious and diverse workforce to drive the industry forward.
Huimin Zhao, the Steven L. Miller Chair Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is collaborating with BioMADE on a project using synthetic biology, machine learning and laboratory automation to ferment succinic acid, which is deemed one of the top 12 biomass platform chemicals by the Dept. of Energy with numerous applications in the food, agriculture, chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Zhao’s research concentrates on translating laboratory-developed biotech products into commercially viable solutions.
The traditional methods of producing succinic acid are often resource intensive and not environmentally friendly, according to Zhao. By harnessing AI’s predictive capabilities, his team can optimize parameters such as pH, temperature and nutrient supply during fermentation to enhance scalability.
The collaboration with BioMADE has expedited succinic acid development cycles, Zhao says, as well as enabled performance prediction at larger scales, reduced development time and promoted sustainable practices by using renewable resources for fermentation. “We also have technological economical tools to determine if the process could be economical at scale,” Zhoa adds.
BioMADE’s emphasis on sustainability is not just lip service; it’s a guiding principle. “Part of why I love being in biology, biochemistry and biotechnology is that nature does so many cool things for us,” Tomczak says, explaining that biotechnology can contribute to addressing global challenges such as sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and environmental remediation.
“I have never seen an industry where there is such open dialogue between the industry and government on questions of safety, security, ethical development, bioethics and sustainable development in the way this industry does it,” Friedman enthuses.
For example, if there are two choices to buy a certain chemical, petroleum-based or bio-based, the latter could be listed on the DoD bio-preferred list. “Any legislation or policy that can help give incentives to our biomanufacturing industry in the U.S. is great, and that includes everything from the farmers who grow feedstocks all the way through to consumer products,” Tomczak adds.
O’Keefe agrees that the possibilities created from the biotechnology and life sciences sector are just beginning. “At Novozymes, we’ve done so much from biofuel solutions that enable ethanol production or animal health and nutrition solutions, reducing the need for probiotics and enabling higher feed food conversion enzymes, enabling cold water claims for at-home energy savings and also enabling the introduction of pods into the market, reducing the transportation of water,” says O’Keefe. “We’ve only scratched the surface, which makes this super exciting.”
The potential of bioindustrial manufacturing is epitomized by the array of products it can create, including carbon-negative chemicals. Other examples include:
Novozyme’s granulated products go into a variety of applications: granulated enzymes for baking to keep bread fresher longer; dish washing detergent in powder or pod form to remove proteins and grease; detergent for gently deep-cleaning medical equipment that removes debris without compromising the integrity of the equipment itself; and enzymes that enable sustainable ethanol creation to reduce our reliance on petroleum.
“All of this is about how we’re able to do more with less, so less footprint, less inputs, less energy, less time—it’s all about efficiency,” O’Keefe notes. “So in this way, BioMADE is really a catalyst for sustainable change because it’s inherent in the technology they’re enabling.”
Access to relevant infrastructure, workforce development resources, technology development and financing are the cornerstones of BioMADE’s strategy to guide companies from inception to profitability, Friedman says. A living example of this is BioMADE’s role in launching a network of pilot-scale biomanufacturing innovation facilities, with the goal of catalyzing an evolution in manufacturing practices.
The establishment of a bioindustrial manufacturing infrastructure will harness advanced biotechnology to convert agricultural feedstocks and waste streams into an array of high-value chemicals, materials and products with diverse applications. From fire-resistant materials to bioplastics and other consumables, the anticipated applications of this infrastructure span a wide spectrum. The construction of this innovative ecosystem is underway, starting in Minnesota and expanding nationwide.
In addition to the Minnesota pilot facility, Friedman says BioMADE is considering the broader requirements for production manufacturing, including relevant feedstocks, electrical needs, wastewater treatment, water usage, permitting and zoning requirements.
“What are the business conditions needed to be competitive? If we can help align that for the industry, it makes it a whole lot easier for a company to say, ‘Hey, we want to build here and manufacture here. Because you guys have done the work for us on behalf of the industry with the industry input’,” Friedman says.
“And that really provides a catalyst for economic development and then product manufacturing here at home. Otherwise, it might be more challenging and it might continue to push companies to build overseas as they are doing today, which is something that we at Manufacturing USA and at BioMADE, are trying to flip on its head.”
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