Reliance Industries Limited, a.k.a. RIL, is India’s largest conglomerate, and its leader, Mukesh Ambani, believes that synthetic biology is the key to powering a clean planet. Here’s why.
Reliance is the largest private business in India, with a growing focus on synthetic biology. The company is applying insights from the field to its big energy, environmental, textile, and petrochemical businesses. Its goal is simple and ambitious: power a clean planet with synthetic biology.
If you’re new to my column, synthetic biology is a booming industry that’s taking on everything from bio-designing cruelty-free beauty products to growing scratch-resistant cell phone screens to storing all the world’s data in a teaspoon of DNA. Reliance is moving directly into synthetic biology’s convergence of biology, computing, and automation. To the extent that the company embraces this growing new bioeconomy, its fortunes stand to rise even further. And there’s good reason to believe they will rise.
How to lead industry with tech and bio
At the head of Reliance is Mukesh Ambani. As chairman, managing director, and largest shareholder of Reliance, he’s the richest man in Asia, with a reputation as a shrewd investor. He is also a self-described “big believer that technology is the biggest driver of human development, and if you can use technology to benefit people, then that’s the best business you can have.”
Ambani recently made headlines for Reliance’s big entrance into India’s telecom market, but his most understated success has been in retail. Recent deals in these areas suggest he’s transforming his company from a petroleum giant into a consumer conglomerate spanning food, electronics, fashion, and energy — industries that all stand to be disrupted by synthetic biology.
“Biology in the next 20-30 years will lead the world,” Ambani told me recently. I visited Reliance’s refinery in Jamnagar — the largest in the world. Reliance showcased how its synthetic biology program, comprised of 150+ scientists and researchers, recently developed an “algae to oil” technology that takes carbon dioxide waste from the refinery, then combines it with algae and sunlight to produce a bio-crude oil that could one day fuel carbon-neutral air travel.
A chemical engineer by training, he left Stanford MBA’s program to help his father build Reliance, which at the time was a small but fast-growing enterprise. Since then, he has championed technologies and systems that have given Reliance a dynamic supply chain and world-class economies of scale.
For its part, Reliance aims to create a bio-innovation scene in India to rival that of Asia’s other major players, such as the Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology, the Shenzhen Synthetic Biology Association, and the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, which was recently funded by another of the world’s leading tech philanthropists, Li Ka Shing.
Fighting climate change with algae
Reliance was early to recognize the potential of algae as a sustainable, clean biomanufacturing platform. Just as we brew beer from yeast, we can make just about anything from medicines and food to next-generation bioplastics and fuels from algae.
Also recognizing algae’s biomanufacturing potential, Checkerspot has a proprietary platform that uses microalgae to produce synthetic biology-enabled performance materials. It raised a $13 million Series A and announced a partnership with the makers of Gore-Tex to use synthetic biology in a new generation of high-performance materials and outdoor products. WNDR – SAM WATSON
Algae are especially good at making oils and fatty acids. You can custom-tune the metabolism of algae to make oils with very specific, high-performance properties, such as materials for skis and performance wear, eco-friendly pigments, food and supplies for astronauts, or omega fatty acid nutritional supplements that don’t decimate fish in our oceans.
And, what’s even better about algae than beer yeast? They can run on sunlight, thanks to photosynthesis — meaning they don’t require traditional electricity-based energy sources to grow and produce their goods. Reliance is also using advances in gene editing to significantly improve the production capacity of algae.
Reliance is spearheading several algae-based projects, including one turning organic waste into kerosene and aviation fuel — a.k.a. “waste to wealth”. By using algae to make bio-crude and other chemicals, it mitigates traditional production techniques that take the carbon of fossil fuels out of the ground and put it into the atmosphere, further contributing to the alarming rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
Ultimately, biomanufacturing can replace most petrochemistry. That would be a huge step in stopping climate change.
“There are many kinds of innovation going on these days,” said Ajit Sapre, head of Reliance’s research and development, “but the only kind that matters is the kind that makes some impact in society.”
How to be exceptional in the bioeconomy
But Reliance’s efforts are about more than supporting a clean environment. Santanu Dasgupta, who leads biology R&D at Reliance, said at SynBioBeta 2019 that the new bioeconomy—driven by synthetic biology—is a way to uplift India’s economy, much of which is built on agrarian society. With agricultural feedstocks as the basis of a new bioeconomy, he thinks Reliance can uplift India’s rural communities along with its biotech sector.
Ajit Sapre, head of Reliance’s research and development, speaking at SynBioBeta. Like Mukesh Ambani, he believes the only kind of innovation that matters is “the kind that makes some impact in society.”
Dasgupta has also remarked that the process of bringing people together across cultural boundaries to explore how synthetic biology can improve people’s lives around the world isn’t going to happen overnight, “but it’s a process that we must start now.”
Ambani’s story is about the kind of courage and vision needed to be a world leader. He saw a huge market inefficiency—the need for oil refining capacity in his home country—and he acted. He built the world’s largest refinery in Jamnagar, going from “it can’t be done” to operational in just 36 months. He made Reliance into a global conglomerate that encompasses food, electronics, fashion, and energy—industries that all stand to be disrupted by synthetic biology. And in doing so, he transformed the Indian economy, created tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, and set a path toward greener energy for the world’s fifth-largest economy.
What is good for the environment is generally good for the bottom line, and the U.S. need look no further than Ambani to see what policy levers it can use to push American industry toward new economic and environmental heights in this age of biology.
A lesson for the United States
“As biorefineries and biomanufacturing become the new engines of industrial growth, the U.S. administration has a choice to make,” says James Schroeder, Managing Partner at Bioinnovation Legal and an expert on Asia’s biotechnology scene. Whether we’re talking about India, China, or the United States, national initiative and assistance are needed for a country to prosper in the global bioeconomy. “If U.S. companies are instead met with leadership indifference and regulatory hostility, the majority of jobs created in the global bioeconomy will go to companies like Reliance and more forward-thinking countries instead.”
“This is no time for caution for the American bioeconomy,” said Schroeder. “Without initiative and leadership at the highest levels of government, the American synthetic biology industry may be unprepared for the global competition it will face.”
But when a country like the United States makes synthetic biology a national priority, anything is possible in the new bioeconomy.
Thank you to Kevin Costa for additional research and editing in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about — including Reliance — are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest — here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.
This article was updated on February 5, 2020. It incorrectly reported that Ambani left Stanford after his father’s death, which actually happened some time later.5