Industrial biotechnology is placing Scotland at the forefront of development and major funding is helping IBioIC penetrate a potential £360bn global market
by Mark Ford
The work of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), launched at the University of Strathclyde two years ago, is placing Scotland at the forefront of a global transformation – the move away from dependence on the use of fossil fuels to create a greener and more sustainable economy.
Industrial biotechnology (IB) is the use of biological substances, systems and processes to produce a range of products such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, materials, and energy, costeffectively, and also with minimal adverse environmental impact.
IBioIC, which aims to increase IBrelated turnover to up to £3 billion in a potential £360 billion global market by 2030, brings together both academic and private sector partners, and is supported by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. To stimulate the growth and success of Scotland’s IB industry, IBioIC facilitates collaborations, and guides organisations, on the tricky path from concept through to industry adoption. An initial £10 million from the SFC is helping IBioIC to unlock more than £45 million of investment from a number of sources, including industrial membership contributions, and also from external funding agencies such as Research Councils UK, Horizon 2020, and TSB.
Last week IBioIC announced its ‘cluster’ membership of the BIC, which represents the private sector in the BBI JU, a £2.8 billion public-private partnership with the EU – a major step in terms of raising the Innovation Centre’s European profile and also in highlighting Scotland’s contribution to the global bioeconomy race. As a BIC member, IBioIC will be instrumental in supporting industrial research and innovation, and substantially add to its armoury in working to overcome that potentially difficult progression between research and marketplace.
The BIC JU consortium operates under Horizon 2020, and is responsible for the implementation of funding calls for IB projects. Roger Kilburn, CEO of IBioIC, says they will now be in a position to influence call topics and that IBioIC members will be in consideration for the private sector to fund and bring together the resources necessary to tackling those challenges that can be involved in commercialising major society- changing new technologies.
“This is a significant step forward in helping our members to access European funding and it’s very important we punch above our weight in attracting that funding,” he says.
“Bio-based industries, and their value chains, are facing complex and substantial technology and innovation challenges; we are proud to become a member of the consortium, which is instrumental in addressing these and leading the success of a sustainable biobased industry sector in Europe.”
In fact, IBioIC is already showing the way after last month’s announcement that research from the first in a series of their backed projects has led to the discovery of an anti-viral and anti-inflammatory carbohydrate in microscopic algae (known as microalgae) which has considerable potential to change the cosmetics market.
As a result of this project’s success, IBioIC member Glycomar Ltd and MicroA have set up Scottish company Prasinotech Ltd, now the first algae refinery in the world built for the manufacture of polysaccharides from microalgae. Prasinotech will also be the first company to grow from IBioIC support, which is aiming to see through a total of seven start-ups in the next four years. “We’re really pleased the project we funded first is finished first,” says Kilburn. “It’s a really good outcome; to have a new company start off in Scotland as a result of that work is a fantastic result, and long may it continue with the other 19 projects we are already funding, or have agreed to fund.
“What’s making the difference is that IBioIC is industry led. In the past, when industry and academia have been working together, the lead has been taken by academia.
“We’ve essentially flipped that round. The twist on that means we are governed by our industrial membership model, industry members pay to be in this, and they are very committed to making it work.
“At IBioIC we are working on the problems industry wants to focus on, using academic assets which are considerable, and capable, to solve the problems set by industry. It’s an approach that has not been tried before in any significant way.”
Kilburn sees a bright future ahead for the partnership, as IBioIC works with more than 50 companies and 200 academics, in an IB industry focused on transforming everyday products, from plastic bottles and packaging to personal grooming products, and the fuel for our cars which for now rely in the main on chemicals and fossil fuels.
Key to that future is talent, and Kilburn is particularly proud of the success of the IBioIC and University of Strathclyde Masters programme, with the first group of graduates last November achieving job offers while others were offered the opportunity to continue their work at PhD level.
Designed by IBioIC, and administered and awarded by the University of Strathclyde, it’s taught at eight different universities across Scotland, with the MSc in Industrial Biotechnology the UK’s first collaborative Masters programme in industrial biotechnology. “From an organisational perspective, turning out the talented people the IB industry wants to employ is a fantastic story,” says Kilburn.
With last week’s annual conference attendance up to 450 from 245 in 2015, he insists the excitement and growing interest surrounding IB is built on a strong foundation, of innovation, talent, and a will for success.
“It’s a very happening area,” adds Kilburn. “This is about weaning industry off its dependence on crude oil, and looking at sources other than fossil fuels. There is a lot of interest on all sides to make that work.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, the petrochemical industry did not exist, but the industry was worth £4 trillion by the end of that century. This, the 21st, is the century when biology will industrialise the world.”
The value of cosmetic results
Prasinotech Ltd, the first company arising from a successful IBioIC project, will be producing active ingredients from microalgae for use in cosmetic skincare.
It’s an exciting example of how the process of using natural resources to create new chemicals and ingredients, has the potential to boost Scotland’s share of the global IB market.
The algae, Prasinococcus capsulatus, has natural anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties, making them particularly suitable for use in the cosmetics and nutraceutical markets, with potential for making products such as sunscreens, moisturisers and wound care products.
The ingredients are not only completely natural, but also highly sustainable as their production needs only seawater, light and CO2. Products containing these ingredients could be available to consumers within three years.
IBioIC will be funding a further IB Accelerator Programme, in association with Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.