Manufacturing is a crude science. We destroy mountains to extract heavy metals, which we then cook at high pressures and temperatures to make things like plastic, nylon, and rubber. Compare this to nature: Living cells and organisms can make all the chemicals needed to thrive across a wide range of environments, often requiring little more than carbon atoms and some sunlight.
“Nature apparently has a much better solution,” says EnginZyme CEO Karim Engelmark Cassimjee. His company sees harnessing biology as a manufacturing platform not as a mere sustainability play, but as a trillion-dollar global market opportunity.
On Wednesday, April 22, EnginZyme announced that they raised €6.4 million in a Series A round led by Sofinnova Partners, bringing the company’s total funding to over €10 million. A spin-out of the Arrhenius Laboratory at Stockholm University, the six-year-old company has been quietly working on a new technology that is set to revolutionize the impact that synthetic biology has on the manufacturing of everything from food ingredients to biomaterials to active pharmaceutical ingredients.
Broadly speaking, companies are starting to adopt biomanufacturing as their preferred method of production. After all, what’s good for the environment is generally good for business (less energy, fewer resources, less chemical processing, and lower costs). Biomanufacturing represents a growing share of the products we use every day. As an example, high-performance bio-electronics will probably end up in your next smartphone, laptop, watch, or television not because their made with biology, but simply because they work better.
Biomanufacturing—without the cell?
But what is astonishing about EnginZyme’s approach is this: It is all done all through the use of cell-free synthetic biology, a technique that can harness the power to build with biology, without needing the cell itself—and all of the complexity that goes along with it.
“Our platform mimics fermentation,” says Cassimjee, talking about the age-old process of using biology to make everything from kimchee to beer. Fermentation has been a cornerstone of the biotech industry for decades now. But EnginZyme’s technology promises a 40% reduction in CapEx (the cost of manufacturing equipment and maintenance) and a 70% reduction in energy.
“We use biology and enzyme catalysts instead of metal catalysts, at lower temp and pressure,” says Cassimjee. This is a game-changer that could enable EnginZyme to compete with the slower moving giants of the chemical industry, allowing for smaller-scale, on-demand manufacturing—something this post-COVID world and its need for localized supply chains is clamoring for.
Taking on the chemical industry
Cassimjee wants to take on nothing less than the entire chemical industry, everything from plastics to bulk chemicals. But the task won’t necessarily be easy for a startup. “For each application, we have to produce a chemical process and production plant,” he says. And the end game is coming up with a proven, large-scale production strategy for making whatever it is the world needs from chemistry.
The fixed-bed technology EnginZymes is using is already well understood, and its separation technology is also well understood. EnginZyme’s secret sauce—the advancement that has the potential to change the paradigm of bio-based manufacturing—is a special material that can bind to enzymes while allowing them to maintain their functionality.
With conventional chemistry, “You put everything in the tank and mix,” says Cassimjee. That chemistry depends on enzymes, the proteins that cause a chemical reaction to move forward. For example, when we hear about a company that has engineered a bacterium to turn sugar into a high-value chemical, it is actually a set of enzymes inside the bacteria that does the hard work of transforming sugar into a chemical. The bacteria simply act as tiny tanks that produce and mix the enzymes, facilitating the fermentation process that makes useful chemical for us.
But with this new tech, the biological enzymes are fixed, and the various ingredients flow through the fixed enzymes, and the final product flows out the other end.
The ultimate manufacturing platform
As I’ve written before, synthetic biology and the protein design world are now able to engineer enzymes for all sorts of novel applications. And because enzymes are long chains of 20 different amino acids, the array of different possible enzymes available is more than the number of stars in the universe, giving humans working from first-order design principles an infinite design space to work within.
“If a company has a specific molecule in mind, we can help them make it,” Cassimjee says.
EnginZyme works with companies who are using biocatalysts—enzymes made with biology—to scale their processes up to industrial production scales.
By separating out the enzymes from the bacteria, EnginZyme greatly simplifies the chemical production process. It significantly simplifies the process, removing the extraneous chemical reactions and energy necessary to keep the bacteria alive. Instead of using a large vat of bacteria that is expensive to set up and run, companies can use an efficient column filled with concentrated enzymes, continuously feeding sugar in the top, and getting their product out the bottom.
As Cassimjee describes it, “It’s like comparing somebody hand-building a car to Henry Ford and the automated assembly line.”
Stevia is a naturally sweet substitute for sugar, but can synthetic biology make it less bitter UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY IMAGES
One example of how EnginZyme’s technology will impact us is in the world of nutrition. The sugar we add to our cakes, cookies and sauces is homogenous, meaning that every molecule (sucrose) is the same. But this isn’t natural, and it certainly isn’t healthy. I have written before about companies that are developing healthy alternatives to sugar, like Codexis with Stevia. EnginZyme’s technology could enable a future where we have access to many different types of healthy sugars and sugar replacements, each one suited for a different specific use case.
We can see the same thing happening with plastics, or with other molecules. We currently have different plastic molecules that are used for different purposes (plastic bottles versus plastic bags, for example), but in the future we could develop greener alternatives to all of these, producing them from waste or making them biodegradable.
Investing and manufacturing in the post-COVID world
Many in the startup world would tell you that venture funding is nearly frozen right now, as funds are evaluating which businesses will be able to survive the new world we live in. With that in mind, for EnginZyme to raise such an impressive round of funding, somebody must believe they are onto something truly transformative.
Biomanufacturing isn’t just about making our current materials cheaper. It is also about bringing incredible new products to market that outperform the best products that conventional chemistry can give us now. By learning from and building upon the diversity that nature has given us, we can make a better product in a better way.
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Thank you to Calvin Schmidt for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about—including Codexis—are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.
Originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2020/04/23/the-future-of-manufacturing-is-built-with-biology-or-how-this-biotech-startup-is-challenging-the-trillion-dollar-global-chemical-industry/0