Two years ago, the synthetic biology start-up Geno decided to scale its process to manufacture a primary alcohol, BDO, from farm-grown materials such as sugarcane, sugar beets, and corn rather than petroleum-based substrates. The chemical is used in the manufacture of numerous products, and has grown into a $10-billion-plus a year market. While Geno’s bio-BDO performs just as well as the petroleum-based product and can be manufactured at a competitive price, its plant-based syn-bio process emits less than 10% of the greenhouse gases that industrial processes do, making it more sustainable.
Although Geno (then called Genomatica) first produced BDO from plant sugars in 2008, its process faced many challenges in evolving from lab to scale. That’s why the San Diego-based firm strategically decided to work with seasoned incumbents such as DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products in 2013 to test its process; with Novamont, an Italian bio-plastics manufacturer, in 2016, to commercialize it; and then, with Qore—the Cargill-HELM joint venture—to manufacture its bio-BDO at scale. Qore plans to invest $300 million to build a syn-bio campus in Iowa by 2024, the centerpiece of which will be a 65,000-tons-per-annum bio-BDO plant—the world’s biggest—that will cater to around 2% of global BDO demand.
In the Syn-Bio Age, going it alone is neither necessary nor sufficient for success. The world over, numerous science-based startups are developing and deploying syn-bio technologies to design sustainable production processes and products such as “green” cosmetics, foods, fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and, of course, industrial chemicals. Consequently, business’s perception is that, just as digital ventures did in the 2000s, syn-bio startups will disruptively challenge incumbents. In that sense, syn-bio startups and incumbent companies, especially those that use petroleum-based feedstocks and industrial processes, appear to be natural-born rivals that must compete against each other. However, that may not be the case in reality—for reasons on both sides.