Industrial Biotechnology (IB) is the process of using natural resources to create new chemicals and ingredients; taking micro-organisms and enzymes to generate industrially useful products in a growing range of sectors including chemicals, food and drink, textiles and biofuels. Although processes involving fermentation (brewing) have been around for millennia, it offers one of the most promising new approaches to industrial resource conservation.
IB creates opportunities to develop new markets and accelerate existing ones while protecting the environment. In pharmaceuticals for example, IB-driven products have revolutionised our ability to treat rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and diabetes. They now make up seven of the top ten best selling drugs globally.
IB processes can even make use of the waste they produce, creating usable by-products while even generating the very energy with which to power the process itself. Biotechnology moves us away from fossil fuel intensive petrochemicals and instead uses renewable raw materials to make the same or similar products.
The global IB market is predicted at £365 billion and with an estimated £400 million to be added to the Scottish economy alone in IB sales over the next four years, it’s no wonder the sector is a priority for the Scottish government. As its new Chair, I’m proud to say that the Scottish Industrial Biotechnology Development Group (SIBDG) has been instrumental in facilitating this. Since it launched the National Plan for Biotechnology in 2013 there have been several major achievements, including the launch of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC). IBioIC’s role in the IB sector puts over 70 companies in contact with 200 academic teams, solving industrially led problems to create economic impact in Scotland and beyond, thereby playing an important key role in delivering the National Plan. The results are already apparent with an 18% increase in Scottish IB turnover to £230 million, exceeding the original 2015 target of the National Plan by £30 million.
IBioIC has also invested £2.7 million in open access equipment centres. The Rapid Bioprocess Prototyping Centre (RBPC) and the Flexible Downstream Bioprocessing Centre (FlexBio) will support the £30 million research programme planned by IBioIC over the next five years, providing significant opportunities for Scotland to increase its competitiveness in the global industrial biotechnology market. IB success relies on biorefining to convert underused natural and discarded resources into valuable products – meeting the goals of the National Plan rely on developing a network of biorefineries.
The opening of Scotland's first biorefinery was actually by an IBioIC member company, CelluComp. The material science company produces sustainable materials from waste streams of root vegetables such as carrots and beets. Their product Curran® has properties which could be used for a variety of applications from paints and coatings, paper and packaging and personal care. It’s a ground-breaking product which not only offers its own unique properties, but also highlights how IB is best placed to tackle one of the environmental challenges we face today - that of maximising the use of waste.
With Scotland’s biorefinery sector worth £189 million in 2013, the aim is now to increase turnover to £900 million in 2025 – an area of focus for me in my new role at the SIBDG. Biorefineries are key to driving an industrial economy producing no waste or pollution from its manufacturing processes. Other countries also see the benefits and are making strides in the area; North America alone has over 220 biorefineries and we need to follow suit.
It’s certainly on the European landscape – one of the largest IB events, the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology and the Bioeconomy (EFIB) is coming to Glasgow later this month. But with its benefits to the economy and to environmental sustainability, IB will continue to be an attractive sector globally, for both government and private bodies. We’ll be able to position Scotland, and therefore the UK, as a destination to undertake sustainable manufacturing for the global marketplace.
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