By Vicki A. Barbur Ph.D.
Innovation has been the cornerstone of the landscape during the pandemic, starting with how to address urgent demands for medical equipment, products, diagnostics, and therapeutics. Breakdowns in previously reliable and consistent supply chains and relevant solutions have highlighted the vulnerabilities for businesses that are heavily reliant on the sourcing of base materials and products from both on-shore and off-shore entities. One example can be found in the biotechnology industry.
Biotechnology is defined as the area of biology that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to develop or modify products and processes for specific use. This area has been gaining ground in delivering solutions in medical environments for the last several years. Examples include biologics and pharmaceuticals developed to attack orphan diseases and, CRISPR, a novel gene editing technology designed to address systemic failures in DNA that are detrimental to well-being. The biotechnology industry is therefore booming, and experts predict it will reach more than $775B in value within the next 4-5 years, a compound annual growth rate of some 9.9%. This is not only due to the promising results of RNA messenger vaccines but is also true for Monoclonal Antibody treatments, which were identified specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic and approved by the FDA for emergency medical use.
Biotechnology applications can deploy biomolecular and cellular processes to develop products and technologies for improving the quality of human life. The industry itself can be segmented into bio-pharmacy, bio-agriculture, bio-services, bio-informatics, and bio-industrial, based on application, although bio-pharmacy holds the largest market share presently.
Currently, biotechnology is being considered to support a range of critical needs associated with several market segments:
- First, there is an effort to address the needs for superior materials, often designed to replace naturally occurring materials which are scarce or expensive – e. g., Spider silk, or those necessarily sourced offshore – e.g., rubber in Malaysia.
- Second, there are opportunities to focus on environmental and climate needs by utilizing captured carbon emissions to aid in the growth of algae that can be subsequently utilized to deliver bio-fuels, also reducing future dependence on petroleum-based products.
- Third, there are potential opportunities to use biotechnology and the related fermentation approach to disrupt the construction industry via the use of materials that would be growable or spreadable, thereby eliminating the need for lengthy and time-consuming construction processes.
There is currently much investment in this field, sparked by a recently announced new Manufacturing Innovation Institute – the Bioindustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem (BioMADE), which is being stood up based on an initial investment by the US Air Force of $85M dollars, a sum matched or exceeded by the member companies joining the consortium. The group will help develop the technology roadmaps and articulate the overall goals and objectives that this institute will deliver in its first 5-years of operation. Additionally, the aim will be to support economic development in key areas by engaging in relevant STEM education (fermentation science) and workforce (engineering biology) training to support the growth and long-term sustainability of the industry.
What does this mean for innovation initiatives in biotech going forward? Previously, biotech has been used to manufacture products like fuels, including ethanol and solvents. Going forward there will be increased focus directed towards:
b. 3-D Bioprinting
e. Gene Editing
f. Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR)
Efforts will explore some of the following predicted consequences in depth:
- When developed to its full potential, industrial biotechnology may have a larger impact on the world than the health care applications have currently
- Industrial biotechnology will use enzymes and micro-organisms to make bio-based products in sectors such as chemicals, food ingredients, detergents, paper, textiles, and biofuels. In some cases, for example, biotech can improve a food by removing an allergen
- Biotechnology offers businesses a way to reduce costs and create new markets while protecting the environment
- Biotechnology can help address many global problems, such as climate change, an aging society, food security, energy security and infectious diseases, to name just a few
- Like all technologies, biotechnology offers the promise of enormous benefit and potential risks, yet unidentified
Industrial biotechnology is ready for development and apt to contribute to impactful applications as outlined above. Additionally, through entities like BioMADE, being able to bridge the gap between lab-scale and at-scale manufacturing enables various communities like commercial companies, universities, and federal entities to work together for the common good. The opportunity to combine biotechnology capabilities with innovative ideas and real-world challenges will undoubtedly impact many aspects of our health, nutrition, and environment in the not-too-distant future.
Vicki A. Barbur, Ph.D.,is currently Senior Advisor, Partnerships, Growth, and Technology Commercialization at KeyLogic Systems. Dr. Barbur brings dual expertise in science and business as well as broad experience in several technical disciplines to her overarching role as a growth leader associated with technology commercialization and IP management. Her primary areas of focus are Health, Energy, Environment and Cyber Security.
Dr. Barbur’s work also includes working with government agencies to streamline the process for securing Intellectual Property and Licensing to allow external organizations and companies to put innovation delivered from federally funded programs to use quickly.
In addition, Dr Barbur develops collaborative and strategic partnerships through University/Academic Institutions, Innovation Bridges, Tech Hubs, Accelerators and Incubators. Previously, Barbur was Senior Director, Partnerships and Technology Commercialization at Battelle; before that she led IP Management and Licensing at The MITRE Corporation.