Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC)
The industrial biotechnology revolution …
Profile: Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC)
ADMIN HUB: University of Strathclyde
FUNDING: £10 million (initial investment)
The industrial biotechnology revolution
If you designed the ideal country to become a global centre for industrial biotechnology, it would look a lot like Scotland – with a few million hectares of farmland attached.
Even though it does not have enough land to support the mass production of biofuels (which currently account for a large proportion of the market), Scotland does tick most of the boxes for industrial biotechnology:
1 it has a well-established food and drink industry (most notably whisky) as well as a significant agricultural sector to provide the by-products (e.g. biomass) and basic feedstocks for many biotechnological processes (e.g. enzymatics and fermentation);
2 it has a world-class life sciences industry with ambitious targets for growth;
3 it has a strong chemical industry in Grangemouth, with a focus on petrochemicals – providing the skills, expertise and logistics that are needed to develop a capability in industrial biotechnology;
4 its marine resources (including aquaculture and its very long coastline) are among the world’s richest;
5 its universities and other academic institutions (including the James Hutton Institute and SAMS – the Scottish Association for Marine Science) have leading researchers working in strategic areas such as synthetic biology and industrial process design, with a good track record of developing highly transferable technologies.
This combination of natural resources, industrial experience and scientific expertise puts Scotland in an excellent position to be a major force in industrial biotechnology, just as it has already established itself as a world-class player in the petrochemicals sector. And according to the CEO of the IBioIC, Roger Kilburn, the way the oil and gas industry has grown in Aberdeen over the last 40 years could serve as a model of how industrial biotechnology could also develop in Scotland in decades to come.
In fact, adds Kilburn, history can teach us some valuable lessons about the possible future trajectory of industrial biotechnology – a science which has only got “serious” over the last ten years. In the early 20th Century, the petrochemical industry did not exist and chemical engineering was only just being invented – e.g. the Haber-Bosch process which enabled mass production of ammonia and nitrate-based fertilisers, revolutionising agriculture and “detonating the population explosion,” as well as aiding the production of explosives themselves. Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry has been transformed over the last 15 years, with seven of the world's top-selling drugs now based on breakthroughs in biotechnology. And Kilburn believes that synthetic biology will soon have a similar impact on industrial processes as well as on the energy sector and how we deal with waste.
“About 100 years ago, we saw the emergence of industrialised chemistry,” Kilburn explains, “and now the same thing is beginning to happen with biology.”
Industrial biotechnology promises to be just as “disruptive” in its impact on the global economy as chemical engineering was a century ago, and what is driving it today is the dramatic decrease in the cost of genome sequencing – which is halving every year and “creating unforeseen and unpredictable opportunities” such as the production of new chemicals and drugs.
In Scotland, says Kilburn, industrial biotechnology could transform the industrial landscape, at the same time as providing a new lease of life for existing facilities, such as the giant petrochemical complex at Grangemouth. It may also lead to the construction of a biorefinery in central Scotland – one of the first wave in Europe – if all the sums add up and all the conditions are met.
The catalyst for industrial biotechnology is synthetic biology and our ability to manipulate genes, but the driving force is the need to find an alternative to the oil-based economy – the industry may still be worth $3 trillion a year, but fossil fuels won't last forever and there is a growing recognition of the need to cut carbon emissions. Thanks to advances in biology, everything now made from fossil-based carbon will soon be made using a new generation of more sustainable biotechnological materials.
We need to shorten the carbon cycle, says Kilburn, replacing what we burn (as fuel or for consumer goods) by replanting in regular cycles, instead of relying on finite deposits laid down million of years ago. Ultimately, this could lead to the creation of a “bio-economy,” using more renewable energy and making better use of resources in industrial processes, as well as making possible advances in the development and manufacturing of new materials and products.
“We are no longer limited to what biology is, but how we can use it to do what we want – including the improvement of manufacturing processes and energy use,” says Kilburn.
Industrial biotechnology will inevitably be a major part of the economy in the future. Apart from the fundamental science involved, the major challenge facing scientists now is economic viability and issues of scale, and this is where the great opportunities lie.
Some of the possible technologies may seem exotic – for example, using bacteria to eat up waste products and convert them into something more useful (bioremediation), or developing a new kind of bacteria resistant to hostile environments such as alcohol or acid – but the benefits promise dramatic advances in areas such as agriculture and healthcare, as well as addressing the climate change challenge. Some of the advances may seem relatively simple – such as improving the way we brew beer – but they all add up to potentially huge gains in terms of both the economy and the environment.
Red, white, blue and green
The new Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre “will harness the combined intellectual horsepower of 13 higher education institutes and create a single portal for industry, focusing on all four ‘colours’ of industrial biotechnology. It also aims “to accelerate and de-risk the development of commercially-viable, sustainable solutions for high-value manufacturing in chemistry-using and life science sectors,” and is a key element of the Scottish Government’s National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology, which is being delivered by SE and HIE.
According to the Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney, Scotland's chemical industry is the country's second top exporter – worth £3.7 billion per year – and the IBioIC could add £130 million to the Scottish economy, helping the country transform from a largely fossil fuel-based to an industrial biotechnology-inclusive economy. John Swinney is pictured (left) getting the lowdown on the IBioIC from Chair Ian Shott (centre) and CEO Roger Kilburn (right).
The ‘four colours’ represent the sectors with the most to gain from advances in industrial biotechnology, from a Scottish perspective. For example, the ‘green’ is agriculture, food and drink, which could benefit from the development of new more sustainable feedstocks, as well as providing the raw materials (e.g. by-products from distilleries and forestry) needed to fuel a new biorefinery. The ‘blue’ represents the marine sector (materials and organisms), with Scotland well placed to take advantage of its coastline and other resources – for example, by developing new techniques to stimulate algae production using photobioreactors (big fermentation tanks with lights inside), as well as boosting seaweed production. This will not just be a more efficient source of feedstocks for fish farms (rich in valuable omega three oils) but also provide food for human consumption as well as numerous other by-products, including the ingredients for fertiliser.
The ‘red’ stands for the pharmaceuticals industry (including human health and cell therapies), which is seeking to be more sustainable, as well as developing smarter solutions, taking advantage of industrial biotechnology in areas such as fermentation, catalysis and cell factory production. In Scotland, the drug development industry has been highly successful and will benefit greatly from future advances in industrial biotechnology. The ‘white’ is industry, where industrial biotechnology will help transform production processes and produce more sustainable energy through integrated bioprocessing and by recycling municipal waste and agricultural by-products.
To support this four-pronged strategy, the Innovation Centre's industry partners have identified five major themes:
1 sustainable feedstocks (including unconventional gases as well as marine and terrestrial crops);
2 enzymes and biocatalysis/biotransformation;
3 cell factory construction and process physiology;
4 downstream processing;
5 integrated bioprocessing.
According to Kilburn, the Centre will focus on research concepts “close to commercialisation,” with proof of scale key to success – in other words new products capable of having global impact and making a significant contribution to the Scottish economy. The IBioIC will sign intellectual property (IP) agreements with the companies under its wing, dealing with every case project by project, and may license solutions to users, but owning IP is not its priority – it simply wants to see solutions being developed and exploited in Scotland, as well as exported worldwide.
The bottom line
According to a report produced four years ago by the IBLF, the global industrial biotechnology sector is expected to grow to a value of £360 billion a year by the year 2025, and the target for Scotland is to increase production from about £190 million today to about £1 billion in 2025 and £2–3 billion by 2030, with the UK as whole contributing a total of about £12 billion. To put this in perspective, the current value of the ethanol industry (dominated by the USA, which currently produces about 50 billion litres a year, with Brazil tipped to emerge as a rival in the very near future) is already about $85 billion, so Scotland and the rest of the UK have a long way to go.
“Because of its experience with ethanol, the USA may have a significant advantage,” says Kilburn, “but industrial biotechnology will soon be a major part of every economy. If we ask when and where it will start to take off, the answer is now – everywhere.”
Whether or not Scotland does build a biorefinery in the near future, industrial biotechnology means every country will need regional and also local solutions. For example, Grangemouth is well placed to process municipal waste as well as rural farming and forestry waste, so would make a good location for a biorefinery, but it could also be the base for many other chemical processing facilities. Kilburn also believes that industrial biotechnology sites will be scattered throughout the whole country, much like local quarries in the past, reducing travel costs and processing locally-available materials.
Scotland's key advantage in industrial biotechnology, says Kilburn, is the combination of existing industries such as petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals, the presence of so many major international companies already using industrial biotechnology, such as GlaxoSmithKline, Ingenza and INEOS, its world-class academic research base and its natural resources. The country also has huge potential for marine – both aquaculture and renewable energy. And if Grangemouth could also emerge, after years of decline, as an integrated industrial biotechnology complex, many different companies could feed off each other, as part of an industrial food chain which utilises every last drop of the available materials. (Dr Ian Fotheringham, President of Ingenza is pictured (left) with Rhona Allison, Life Sciences Director at Scottish Enterprise, exploring the Ingenza Plant).
“We have to focus on what we are good at,” says Kilburn, “and develop accordingly. We also need to answer several fundamental questions – for example, do we want to create a centre of academic excellence or become an engine of economic growth?” In Kilburn's view, the emphasis for the new Centre should also be on “market pull” not “product push” – developing world-class solutions so that more and more companies knock on the door, rather than developing new solutions and hunting for buyers. Helping to draw up a roadmap to a biorefinery may also be one of its tasks, whilst international partnerships may also emerge – e.g. exchanging knowledge with neighbours such as Norway.
Other parts of the UK have also been put forward as centres for industrial biotechnology – London because of its municipal waste and East Anglia because of its farming – but Scotland has the edge in several areas. “Scotland has a unique formula for success,” concludes Kilburn, “and the world-class researchers and industrial partners added to our natural resources (agriculture, forestry and marine) and existing infrastructure are a very strong foundation for the future.”
Industrial biotechnology will have a huge impact on countries worldwide and Kilburn also stresses the need for a global perspective. “It will be difficult to build a £1 billion industry by 2025 with home-grown small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), important through they are,” he explains. “We need to work with major international players such as Lucite, INEOS and GSK.”
The IBioIC has been up and running for less than a year and is still focusing on gathering intelligence and building global links. But Kilburn is convinced that industrial biotechnology has huge potential and will quickly gain momentum in Scotland: “We are surrounded by the products of the petrochemical age (e.g., polymers, coatings and detergents) and our economy is still dominated by fossil-based fuels, but that must change and will change in the near future, as more and more companies adopt bioprocesses as an integral part of their business.”
The global economy has depended on fossil-based feedstocks until now, and Kilburn is convinced that the increased use of shale oil and gas will only delay the inevitable move towards biotechnology – in Scotland and everywhere else.
What is industrial biotechnology?
Industrial biotechnology is “the use of biological resources (including plant, algae, marine life, fungi and micro-organisms) to produce and process materials into products such as pharmaceuticals (including vaccines and antibiotics), high-value chemicals, materials and energy, using cells (from plants or animals) or parts of cells as biocatalysts. The modern industry is gathering momentum largely due to recent advances in science such as genomics and synthetic biology, but the roots of the industry lie in more basic activities such as distilling and brewing.
The benefits of industrial biotechnology include reducing the consumption of water and energy in manufacturing processes, and the reduction of waste. In the energy sector, industrial biotechnology can be used to generate power using biomass or biofuels. In pharmaceuticals, it is used in drug development as well as production – e.g. to improve fermentation techniques. In agriculture and aquaculture, it provides new sources of lower-cost feedstocks, and helps reduce waste by making better use of by-products such as woodchips. Ultimately, industrial biotechnology could help replace fossil-based fuels – producing energy as well as raw materials for new consumer products, drugs and food.
The educational supply chain
One of the key objectives of the IBioIC is skills development, including the establishment of a new collaborative MSc programme in Industrial Biotechnology, as well as collaborative PhD programmes and studentships, an HND programme (in partnership with Forth Valley College and Glasgow Kelvin College) and apprenticeships. The collaboration with industry will involve MSc students spending half of their time in an industry placement, whilst also giving them the chance to broaden their knowledge by taking modules in a range of different subjects such as marine biology, synthetic biology or bioprocessing. The collaboration will also pool the resources of 14 universities, each of which has something different to offer. From September 2014, the Centre will also fund nine PhD students, with business skills part of the programme.
The Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) was set up to accelerate and de-risk the development of commercially viable, sustainable solutions for high-value (speciality & commodity) manufacturing in chemistry-using and life science sectors. It aims to be “an innovation and growth engine yielding substantial economic impact and delivering increasing and sustainable wealth creation, prosperity and employment in Scotland.” The economic target is to contribute £1–1.5 billion of Gross Value Added to the Scottish economy every year – an increase from an estimated £190 million today – and create up to 1,500 jobs over the next five years.