Fermentation, the process of breaking down sugars using the enzymes of microorganisms, is almost as old as civilization itself. The use of microbial cultures to preserve and improve the nutritional value of foods and produce alcoholic beverages, goes back millenia. So it may come as no surprise to learn that a technique first used by the ancient Egyptians can now hold the key to the future of industrial production.
In the wild, fermentation is slow and unpredictable, as many sourdough bread makers and beer enthusiasts discovered during the early days of the pandemic. And that’s what most people envision when they hear the word fermentation. But this type of fermentation has been successfully scaled for the commercial production of breads, beers and kombucha, among other products.
Now, scientists are able to engineer the fermentation process to use microbes to manufacture consumer products like palm oil, cosmetics, cheese, medicines and even plastics on an industrial scale. This process is called precision fermentation and it can be used to make biology-derived products that have a much lower impact on climate and land and water use than the same products made conventionally.
One of our portfolio companies, Pow.bio, takes precision fermentation a step further. Pow.bio has a high-throughput platform to optimize and maximize precision fermentation, so companies can bring their products to market quickly. At the heart of Berkeley, California-based Pow.bio’s platform is continuous fermentation.
Traditionally, fermentation has been done on a batch basis—you start one fermentation run, wait for it to finish and then repeat the process. Continuous fermentation, on the other hand, means continually feeding fresh sugar media like corn or sugar beets, to cultivate the cells that enable companies to manufacture their consumer products. Continuous fermentation increases the amount of cells that each run produces by 10 times. This helps drive down the cost of biology-derived products so they are on par with conventionally made ones.
Pow.bio is part of the much broader synthetic biology (synbio) industry, which is focused on reprogramming the DNA code of living organisms to make myriad new products. By using innovations in DNA synthesis, lab automation and machine learning, scientists can engineer DNA to make products such as palm oil from yeast or plastics from bacteria. Making these products with biology is more sustainable–and climate friendly–than the current processes that consume acres of land and rely on petroleum based chemicals.
Investors are taking notice. For example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates was an early funder in Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based beef. He also invested in Ginkgo Bioworks, a genetic engineering platform making custom microbes, and helped fund Pivot Bio, which produces microbes to self-fertilize crops. Eric Schmidt, one of the founders of Google, has invested in synbio too, including Zymergen, Bolt Threads, GRO Biosciences and Ukko. Meanwhile, Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, is also invested in Bolt Threads, as well as Synthego and Emerald Cloud Lab. Beyond Meat and Ginkgo Bioworks, both publicly traded companies, each have a market cap in excess of $2 billion.
McKinsey estimates that biological applications could account for between $2 to $4 trillion in annual direct global economic activity, with food being the biggest portion of that, at potentially $1.2 trillion. (Read my earlier blog post about how biomachines are driving innovations in food production.) But Boston Consulting Company reports that 90% of synbio technologies fail because they can’t be scaled. With more players like Pow.bio, synbio companies can access the necessary technology to grow their business and bring products to market.
I recently sat down with Pow.bio co-founder and CEO Shannon Hall to talk fermentation, climate change and the future of food.
Continuous fermentation is often referred to as the holy grail in synbio and the answer to scaling up. What is the future of synbio using continuous?
When you’re fermenting, you’re building cells. As you go, you get more and more cells. And each cell is designed to produce your product. Eventually those cells reach their peak level of productivity. Traditionally, you would then harvest those products and stop the fermentation process, then start it all over again. With continuous fermentation, you keep that process going for a much longer period of time so you’re not wasting time regrowing cells. We are able to produce much more material. By doing it this way, our customers are able to make their products much faster with less capital investment.
In addition, we also have the perfect opportunity to learn what makes for a successful process and ask questions. What if we change the temperature? What if we change the pH? What if we change the amount of oxygen? We can examine multiple different process parameters multiple times and by answering these questions, we can build a data map that is extremely thorough. The data lets us know what we can expect from our cells which delivers the most productive output for a particular organism or a particular product.
What technologies enable Pow.bio to function as it does and support its scaling?
At the core of our functionality are the fermenters. We originally used third-party software to create some control over those fermenters, but we realized that if we wrote our own software we could have better control of what happens in the fermenters. We’ve assembled our own configurations of equipment and built our own solution to allow us to not only execute continuous fermentation but to extract data out of the fermenters and create a truly intelligent fermentation technology. In terms of scaling, the continuous process allows us to use much smaller fermentation runs to make products much more efficiently. That means we’ve had massively lower capital needs and lower operating expenses AND we’re producing a lot of material. In short, we have the ability to scale our overall capacity much faster by volume, and for less money.
What are the climate implications of scaled up fermentation?
The fermentation process allows us to create products in a way that has significantly less impact than farming animals in terms of land, water and greenhouse gasses. Fermentation as a sustainable manufacturing platform enables us to make foods that would otherwise consume a lot of land, like palm oil. And, fermentation can be used to make ingredients that otherwise require toxic chemicals. Since fermentation starts with a biological source of energy, like corn, sugar beets, and sugar cane, the fuel for fermentation can be grown. Unlike using petroleum to fuel manufacturing, this is fully sustainable.
How does fermentation address larger global challenges around food access?
In several ways. As we think about the future, and population growth, we need to come up with solutions for how we will feed everyone in a sustainable way that doesn’t just ruin the environment. We also need to address the huge inequities of how we provide protein for everyone. Using biology to grow current and novel protein sources, we can foresee a path towards global food security.In a post-pandemic, post-war world supply chains may never be the same. We can address what happens in the aftermath of an emergency when we need to feed people quickly.
Continuous fermentation addresses all of these challenges by providing the low capital, high performance fermentation platform to grow sustainable foods anywhere in the world.
You've worked in bioscience for 25 years. What changes have you noticed for women in this industry?
For one thing, there are more of us. At various times in my career, I was both the youngest executive and one of the only women in the room. But that’s changing and it’s very exciting to see.
Younger women in biology are also having a different experience than I did. After I became president of Bio Rad Laboratories, we held a Women in Bio event, and I remember Rachel Haurwitz of Caribou Biosciences, who is 36 years old, observing that she hadn’t seen any barriers in her academic or professional career. She’s only been in this industry for 11 years so that told me, “There are now enough women coming up through the ranks that we’re taking our (well earned) place at the leadership table.”
About Bee Partners
Founded in 2009, by operator-turned-investor Michael Berolzheimer, Bee Partners is a pre-Seed venture capital firm that partners with revolutionary Founders working at the forefront of human-machine convergence across technologies that include robotics, AI, voice, i4.0, and synthetic biology. The firm leverages a singular approach to detecting new and emerging patterns of business as well as inside access to fertile but often overlooked entrepreneurial ecosystems to identify early opportunity in large, untapped markets. Bee’s portfolio companies consistently realize growth at levels that outstrip industry averages and have secured more than $1.5 billion of follow-on capital from the world's top VCs.
Here's what we're looking for: beepartners.vc/lookingfor
Here's what we believe in: beepartners.vc/diversity-equity-inclusion
Want to work in our portfolio? Seejobs.beepartners.vc