28 Mai 2013

Interview: What does the future hold for industrial biotechnology in the UK?

Exclusive interview with Dr Yvonne Armitage from the Biosciences KTN

In each issue of the NNFCC Newsletter we feature an expert voice in the field of biorenewables who will give their opinion on the latest developments in the field. In the latest issue, we talk exclusively to Dr Yvonne Armitage from the Biosciences KTN about the role of industrial biotechnology in the UK.

Why is industrial biotechnology important to the UK?

Developing Industrial biotechnology is very important to ensure UK based process companies remain competitive in a global marketplace and that we maintain our leading edge in fundamental research in this area. Countries such as the US, Germany, Japan and China have for many years embraced the use of IB as an enabling technology and the UK needs to follow suit.

The UK has excellent competencies in the research and technology base which can be transferred readily to industry through collaboration, enabling companies to rapidly integrate IB into their operations. Historically, perceptions might have been that IB was suitable only for high value products and processes, but this is simply not the case and there are many examples of cost-effective commercial processes for a wide range of products, including commodity chemicals. This will give confidence to UK companies that this is a technology suitable for all.

Given your experience working with Ciba and BASF do you think the chemicals industry really has an appetite for industrial biotechnology?

Absolutely! Chemical companies are now recognising the benefits that IB has to offer that the pharma, personal care and food industries in particular have enjoyed for decades. For instance if we consider the benefits of using biocatalysts; which include high selectivity in operation resulting in no by-products as well as the use of low temperature and pressure, this results in lower energy and lower cost processes.

Companies are now recognising this and are keen to explore what IB could do for them. Advances in genetic and protein engineering are also giving access to a wider range of cheaper, more robust and readily available enzymes. Thus, this cost effectiveness, coupled with possible leading edge processes and/or marketing advantages make IB highly attractive for the chemistry-using industries. Not forgetting of course that if their competitors are already using IB, then this is undoubtedly a big incentive for companies to at least consider IB in their operations.

What is the main driver behind the industry investing in bio-based chemicals and products?

It depends on the company and their customers, as to their main driver, but undoubtedly for some applications performance of the product is a major factor. Some bio-based products show superior functional properties compared with synthetic products in a number of applications, such as thickeners used in a number of industries and various personal care product additives.

The availability of new and novel bio-based products also gives additional market and application potential. There is no doubt that in recent years that the use of bio-based materials – particularly by the consumer facing big brand owners – is becoming an increasingly attractive marketing tool.

With regards to the use of bio-based compounds as a source of starting materials for monomer and intermediate chemicals production, one of the key drivers is quite simply the cost of oil. This is certainly making renewable materials more attractive as the cost of oil increases or fluctuates significantly. A number of companies have active programmes investigating the potential for the use of sugars and more importantly waste materials to convert to their existing chemicals, effectively to act as ‘drop in’ replacements.

What advice would you give to those businesses looking to start developing industrial biotechnology?

There is a lot of expertise and help in the UK to assist businesses and they should take full advantage of this. As already mentioned we have an excellent technology base in our universities and technology-provider companies and the recent setting up of networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy by the BBSRC and the future IBBE Catalyst in conjunction with the Technology Strategy Board, should give a real focus for companies to tap into these multi-disciplinary networks for expertise.

For a number of years, funding has been available to companies from the TSB to support their activities in IB, as well as demonstration facilities all designed to reduce the risk of starting out in IB. And of course the combination of Chemistry Innovation and Biosciences KTN activities as part of an IB special interest group is a resource available to all businesses to help them to find partners and highlight the funding and other mechanisms available to support their activities. My final advice is what have you got to lose in at least considering the potential of IB in your business and join the dozens if not hundreds of companies who have already taken steps in IB.

How did the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum (IBLF) begin?

The IBLF was formed as one of the key recommendations made in a report to Government by an Innovation Growth Team (IGT) in IB in 2009. The report clearly sets out the vision for IB in the UK and identified the barriers to success and how these barriers could and should be overcome.

The IGT, which consisted of many senior representatives from industry, together with policy makers highlighted a total of 21 recommendations grouped into five critical areas that were needed to help the UK fully exploit IB, both in the academic and research base as well as industry. The first of these was the provision of leadership to promote and connect IB activities across all supply chains. Thus, the first recommendation was the formation of an overarching industry/Government leadership forum to take ownership of the recommendations from the IB-IGT and to oversee and drive implementation of a coherent strategy in IB for the UK. The IBLF is committed to continuing in this role more than 3 years since its inception.

How is the IBLF driving forward the industrial biotechnology sector in the UK?

The IBLF takes responsibility for all of the original recommendations set out in the IB-IGT report to Government ‘IB 2025: ‘Maximising UK Opportunities from Industrial Biotechnology in a Low Carbon Economy’. The report concluded that IB products and processes are critically important in meeting the sustainable needs of the 21st Century and a strategy was needed to ensure that every effort was made to achieve excellence in IB in the UK. Thus, one of the key activities of the IBLF delivery team – which is made up of Chemistry Innovation and Biosciences KTNs – is to raise awareness of the capabilities of IB, both in the private and public sectors, particularly through engaging with chemistry-using companies, especially those who are possibly unaware of the potential and benefits that IB can offer as a technology.

This engagement through one-to-one discussions, networking events together with the provision of funding and facilities such as the National Industrial Biotechnology Facility at CPI in the North East, is critical to developing a cohort of companies who are now ready to test and develop IB in their businesses. The fact that we already have a considerable number of organisations who are already demonstrating world class products and processes as a result of IB that the new to IB companies can look to for inspiration and in some instances help in the form of collaboration should give rise quite easily to the potential £12 bn ‘size of the prize’ that is estimated as a result of IB in the UK by 2025.

However, this aspiration would not be possible without support from Government in for a number of activities, including research, skills provision, support organisations such as the KTNs which help to facilitate and ease the process of taking the plunge with IB and help to speed up their timelines for implementation. The IBLF continues to drive IB in the UK through its delivery team and the various sub-groups on measuring success, skills, outreach and communication and financing. There has never been a better time in the UK to look at IB.

  • More Information


- The NNFCC newsletter on Industrial Biotechnology (PDF, 3.5 MB) can be downloaded from nnfcc.co.uk. The Govermental report is available under berr.gov.uk.

Source: NNFCC, press release, 2013-05-28.

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