“Currently what happens is that innovation created in Italy is then exploited abroad, due to a lack of direct access to on-site manufacturing facilities or industrial pilot plants. Closer cooperation between SMEs and large companies could accelerate the scale-up and industrialization steps, which often represent demanding investments for SMEs and –in particular at this rather difficult economical stage that translate in very unlikely access to credit, making it not always affordable”.
To say it is Sara Cantone, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Sprin, a spin-off of the University of Trieste founded in December 2007 that operates in the research, development, production and commercialization of advanced products for implementing sustainable chemical processes. In particular, Sprin – that since 2010 has had the participation of Venture Capital, AlAdInn Venture – is focused on the production of immobilized enzymes and the supply of services for the development of bio-catalyzed processes. With Cantone, we talk about the bioeconomy and in particular the role played by the enzymes in its development.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Why an industry of enzymes is fundamental for the development of the bioeconomy?
The term “bio-economy” encompasses a wide range of research, products, and applications, whereby the common objective is to use renewable raw materials and/or sustainable processes in order to replace fossil-oil based production.
Within this general framework, enzymes play an important role as products themselves or as catalysts. Since biocatalysed processes can replace the “classical” chemical steps with quite a few advantages such as, greater specificity and milder reaction conditions, therefore allowing for less energy consumption, less production waste, and also allowing for a lower environmental impact than the corresponding chemical routes.
So-called “Industrial Biotechnology” will see a wider market in many industries in the years to come, such as the chemical, cosmetic, textile, food, and of course also within the bio-refineries, where the need to develop biocatalysts specifically designed to the process of interest will be a key issue.
An enzyme industry thus becomes crucial, both for the development of new fermentation processes in order to lower production costs, and for the engineering of the enzymes themselves, with the aim of obtaining more specific, durable and productive biocatalysed processes.
What are enzymes and what are their industrial applications?
Enzymes are proteins found in nature (and also in the human body), which act as catalysts, i.e. speed up reactions. Now-a-days industrial enzymes are produced by fermentation, using different types of microorganisms. Enzymes may be used in many different applications and products, for instance in the food, textile, cosmetic and paper industry, in detergents and cleaning agent formulas, in fine chemicals and chiral compound synthesis, in the production of bio-diesel and bio-ethanol.
How are specifically used in biorefineries?
Enzymes are sustainable tools to use in bio-refineries, where biomass is treated in order to convert it into fuels, energy and chemicals rendering it a sustainable way of transforming raw materials. Enzymes efficiency in lignocellulosic biomass (e.g. straw, wood chips etc..) pre-treatment has been proven, as well as in the hydrolysis of the cellulosic material or for the conversion of starch into sugars. Different process configurations have been developed for processing plant raw materials into the production of chemicals and fuels, and biotechnology offers new possibilities for the creation of integrated bio-refineries.
What is the immobilization of enzymes?
The immobilization is a technology that allows the application of enzymes also in processes where the native enzymes cannot be used. Immobilization stabilizes the enzyme, which can then operate even under conditions that would normally degrade the native enzymes quickly, furthermore allowing the easy separation of the biocatalyst from the reaction media (by simple filtration). The use of immobilized enzymes does not require substantial changes in production facilities, thus avoiding massive investment.
Immobilization also allows the lowering of the total production costs of the final product, where the higher costs arising from the process of immobilization are compensated by the possibility of reusing the biocatalyst, thus decreasing the final impact from an economical point of view.
What should be done to support in Italy an industry of enzymes, able to compete with a giant like Novozymes?
Italy is characterized by a rather fragmented reality, consisting mainly of public research institutions and small and medium enterprises (often spin-offs of universities or research centers), which are struggling to communicate with the larger realities of the territory. Thinking about the possibility of building up a reality that can compete with bigger, well-established enzyme industries would mean huge investments. Instead it is much more feasible, in the short to middle term basis, in creating a chain or in uniting different players consolidating all their work together.
In order to understand the potential of technologies and possibilities of business deriving from both academic results and from SME research and development, bigger companies must cover the required expertise in the areas of interest, and must be able to invest in innovative products and technologies. A profitable dialogue among the various players would also provide adequate and clear information about the industrial processes and the needs of the market to the academics.
There is also another problem to overcome: the required time to translate the results of research into marketable products. Currently what happens is that innovation created in Italy is then exploited abroad, due to a lack of direct access to on-site manufacturing facilities or industrial pilot plants. Closer cooperation between SMEs and large companies could accelerate the scale-up and industrialization steps, which often represent demanding investments for SMEs and –in particular at this rather difficult economical stage that translate in very unlikely access to credit, making it not always affordable.
It is very important to have a clear and fair IP regulatory agreements, in order that the commercialization of the developed technologies and products can be profitable for both big and small companies involved. In this context, of course, a key role is also played by national policies, as well as private funds being capable of making investments in the long term, which should give incentive to these kinds of joint ventures.
The Italian version is published on www.affaritaliani.it/green