Transitioning the chemical industry through biotechnologies
The traditional chemical industry has played a vital role in shaping our modern world by providing society with cost-effective products and solutions that fulfill common, everyday needs, in nearly every sector of the economy.
The use of petrochemicals is not sustainable since the world’s fossil-fuel supply is not infinite. Concerns over scarcity of supply, expense, and negative impact on the planet have now positioned it as a catalyst for transitioning to a carbon-neutral future. Today’s consumers want, and regulators are demanding, more sustainable solutions that take into account the origin of renewable feedstocks, the processes used to convert feedstocks into chemicals, and end-of-life management that closes the loop with recyclable and biodegradable solutions.
These changing consumer behaviors around sustainability, along with regulatory pressures, are driving this shift toward decarbonization. Initiatives like the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which offers billions of dollars in tax credits for clean energy and low-carbon technologies, or the European Green Deal, which was designed to preserve and expand Europe's clean-tech industries, are paving the way for the industry to accelerate this transition.
The sustainable use of renewable resources and biotechnology has gained momentum in manufacturing and offers the potential to help solve some of the most pressing challenges faced by society today — air and water pollution, resource scarcity, and population growth, while also helping to satisfy the increasing consumer demand for sustainable products.
To that end, in 2021, Solvay created a Renewable Materials and Biotechnology Growth Platform, which complements Solvay’s three other existing growth platforms: Battery Materials, Green Hydrogen and Thermoplastic Composites.
“With this platform, we take a holistic approach that integrates eco-design, and is based on three pillars,” said Thomas Canova, Head of Solvay’s Renewable Materials and Biotechnology Growth Platform. “First, we look at the origin of sustainable renewable feedstocks. Second, we foster the use of more sustainable processes to convert feedstocks into the chemicals we want. Finally, we must address end-of-life management and how to close the loop with recyclable and biodegradable solutions.”
On Feb 14, join Thomas Canova, Solvay’s Head of the Renewable Materials & Biotechnology Growth Platform, to discuss the future of the chemical industry, biotech trends and much more!
So what does the future hold?
Biotechnologies present a unique opportunity for the chemical industry to reinvent the way products are made — a radical transformation in how chemicals are designed. When we talk about the future, we are talking about new ways of delivering the solutions that matter to society.
“But let me be very clear here: we’re not talking about a competition between chemistry and biology,” Thomas said. “They often come together, and they get along pretty well. Chemistry needs the power of biology to reach new heights in terms of sustainability, and biology shall benefit from all the available chemical knowledge to become increasingly affordable and present in our lives.”
“Chemistry needs the power of biology to reach new heights in terms of sustainability, and biology shall benefit from all the available chemical knowledge to become increasingly affordable and present in our lives.”
Thomas Canova, Head of Solvay’s Renewable Materials and Biotechnology platform
Prior to launching the new platform, Solvay was already a leader in certain bio-based products (such as guar, bio-sourced solvents and vanillin) and determined the time had come to accelerate and expand, reach new markets, and come up with more innovative solutions that can support sustainability across markets.
This focus on renewable materials and biotechnology presents an outstanding opportunity to reinvent the way chemicals are produced using less energy, demonstrating higher performance, and reducing environmental footprint — particularly when combined with a digital component and AI as an enabler of biotech (bioinformatics) and new business models.
By the end of 2030, Thomas projects that it’s likely synthetic biology will account for more than a third of the global output in manufacturing industries, with biotechnology expected to have an estimated economic impact of more than 2 trillion € annually by 2040.
The biotech revolution has begun
Solvay’s initiatives in this area are designed to reinforce our position in biotech and help us better serve our customers as we reinvent chemistry through biotechnology, Solvay CEO Ilham Kadri explained.
“From agriculture to personal care, food and beverages to aerospace, we can modify the chemistry for the sectors where it can employ industrial biotech and renewable feedstocks to provide sustainable, value-added alternatives. As a leader already in bio-based products like guar, bio-sourced solvents and vanillin, Solvay is uniquely positioned to help solve some of the most pressing challenges faced by society today.”
This is for sure, an exciting journey for the chemical industry.
The synthetic biology (Syn-bio) landscape is flourishing, with start-ups in the field continuing to engineer more sustainable products that consume fewer resources, don’t use fossil fuels or their derivatives, generate products that are more durable, generate less waste after use, and are predominantly healthier for humans.
According to the Boston Consulting Group, Syn-bio start-ups are expected to disrupt many industries, particularly impacting health and beauty, medical devices, and electronics in the near future. Other sectors like chemicals, textiles, and water management will face cost-based competition over the next 10 years, with mining, electricity, and construction to follow.
Growth of the Syn-bio sector
Solvay Ventures, the venture capital fund of Solvay, recently joined the Genesis Consortium to support startups in SOSV’s IndieBio startup development program, which holds a portfolio of early-stage venture-backed companies with ties to Solvay’s key markets, including agritech, food, bio-based materials and personal care.
This strategic investment will enable the Group to accelerate and expand its offering of innovative solutions using biotechnology.
Dedicated to supporting startups that leverage biotechnology to promote human and planetary health, SOSV is a multi-stage venture fund that operates IndieBio, a leading startup development program focused on human and planetary health across categories including the food, agriculture, materials, climate tech, and biopharma sectors.
Solvay Ventures has demonstrated interest in IndieBio’s graduates’ companies, which represent a growing number of early-stage ventures with ties to Solvay’s commitment to innovating in chemical biotechnology.
Start-up champion, Boston-based Syn-bio company Ginkgo Bioworks has been reprogramming science to disrupt a range of industries and has created a conglomerate business model that it calls “Berkshire (Hathaway) for biotech.”
Ginkgo Bioworks is on the front line, bringing capital, partners and projects around their platform to lower development costs, making biotech more predictable and thus closer to economic reality. The company boasts of having more than 80 major programs active on its platform and is looking to consolidate more of the world's cell-engineering needs.
Historically, repeatability and predictability have been difficult in biotech projects, and a huge hurdle to scaling and achieving commercial-stage success. But another start-up, DMC Biotechnologies, a precision fermentation company built on a technology platform that was explicitly designed and validated to address the challenge of efficiently getting to scale, has focused on science to jump these repeatability and predictability biotech hurdles. DMC has projects on the books with some blue chip partners, and is helping them achieve their decarbonization goals and address challenges with the hazards of the materials they're using today. The company works globally with partners across the supply chain and recently closed on a Series B round of financing.
As in any disruptive field, complex innovation ecosystems that bring together different knowledge-based partners are needed to turn all the great concepts being crafted into valuable solutions for society. Solvay is committed to embracing this challenge to accelerate the transition toward a more sustainable chemical industry.