“Scotland has under 10% of the UK population and over 30% of the land mass giving it considerably more capacity for growing biomass as feedstock for the bioeconomy. Scotland has great research capabilities, a strong base of SMEs looking to develop its bio-capabilities and the joined up support of the government with all its agencies in developing this opportunity”. Roger Kilburn, CEO IBioIC (Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre) Scotland, talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this long, exclusive interview, he talks about UK and Scottish bioeconomy, the role of industrial biotechnology and Brexit. “The fundamental reasons for developing the bioeconomy – he says – are the positive impact it has on sustainability, the environment and the ability to produce new and improved materials. None of these fundamentals are affected by Brexit”.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Chemistry Growth Partnership, a public/private initiative launched by the British government in 2013, estimates that the national economy would benefit from £8 billion by 2030, if the chemical industry used biomass as raw material. It would also grow by £4-12 billion a year if industrial biotechnologies were employed. According to a governmental report, from 2009 to 2013, the turnover of the industrial biotech sector grew by 11% and employment by 5%, annually. What is exactly the role of industrial biotechnology to develop the bioeconomy?
Industrial Biotechnology (IB) is a small but growing sector of the bioeconomy, it was estimated by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, editor’s note) in a 2015 report to be £2.9 billion in 2014, growing to £4.1 billion by 2020. Biotechnology and hence the bioeconomy is divided into four ‘colours’, green for agriculture, blue for marine, red for health and white for industrial applications. The largest sectors in the UK are green followed by red.
We define IB as the use of bio-based feedstocks to produce chemicals, materials and energy. These feedstocks can be agricultural or forestry products and co-products (such as grains, straw or stumps), industrial and municipal waste (such as plastic, paper or food). The processes used to convert these materials into useful products can be either chemical or biological, such as fermentation. The opportunities for this sector are huge given its current reliance on fossil fuel as its feedstock, we are only at the very start of exploring the potential for this sector. A hundred years ago the petrochemical industry was just emerging, in a hundred years time many of our current petrochemical based products (plastics, paints, detergents etc.) will be replaced by bio-based ones.
What are the most relevant cases of industrial biotech companies in Scotland?
There are several well established IB companies in Scotland, some of which have been around for many years, examples include one of our leading members GSK in Irvine who ferment sugars to product anti-biotics; Argent Energy who take used cooking oils and abattoir waste to produce bio-diesel; Macfarlane Smith who process opium poppies to produce pain relief medicine. There are also new smaller companies such one of our core members, Celtic Renewables, who take co-products from whisky manufacturing to produce butanol, a key fuel additive and chemical solvent; Cellucomp who take waste root vegetables to produce high value thickening agents and Glycomar who extract special sugars from seaweeds that have therapeutic benefits.
Of IBioIC’s 76-strong membership, 26 are Scottish companies. In total there are over 50 companies in Scotland active in IB; with many others that could become active.
In the United Kingdom the vision to 2030 is very clear: making the country one of the world’s leaders in the field of the bioeconomy, thanks to the nationwide presence of waste-based commercial scale plants, to the ability to attract investments from the rest of the planet and to the availability of technologies and business models to export the world over. From your point of view what are the strengths and the weaknesses of the United Kingdom in the bioeconomy?
The key strengths of the UK bioeconomy are its world leading capabilities reasearch and innovation, its skilled and educated workforce combined with numerous petrochemical sites around the country with the necessary infrastructure and space to convert to IB processing cost-effectively.
The key weakness is given the high population density there is relatively limited biomass available leading to opportunities for lower volume, higher value products.
Scotland was the first UK country, and one of the first in Europe, to present its own strategy for the circular economy. Announced last February by the Minister for the environment, Richard Lochhead, it will allocate €70 million between national and European funds to reduce considerably food and building waste (representing 50% of all Scottish waste). As stated by Lockhead, reducing food waste by only one third – one of the targets by 2025 – could add £500 million to the national budget. What is the state of the art of the strategy?
Industrial biotechnology (IB) can help considerably with the reduction of these waste streams particularly the food waste. Current technologies largely centre around composting and anaerobic digestion to convert the waste into a renewable alternative to natural gas. Whilst these are useful, they tend to be low value and IB can convert these wastes to higher value products. The applications of these technologies is highly sensitive to the composition of the waste. On 19th October, IBioIC announced the launch of a joint project with Zero Waste Scotland (the Government agency selected to implement this fund) to support the development and application of new technologies for the circular economy.
As you see it, how are bioeconomy and circular economy interconnected?
The bioeconomy is part of the circular economy as it is looking to develop processes that use sustainable and renewable resources to produce the materials that we now take for granted in our world. To develop the circular economy there is a hierarchy of process to apply in descending order of preference, which is share, maintain, re-use, refurbish and finally recycle. IB fits into the last of these.
What differentiates the bioeconomy in Scotland from that of other UK countries?
All the UK countries are interested in developing their bioeconomies. Scotland has a long history of innovation and support for renewable and sustainable technologies, for example Scotland is second only to Norway in Europe for its renewable electricity generation capacity. Scotland has under 10% of the UK population and over 30% of the land mass giving it considerably more capacity for growing biomass as feedstock for the bioeconomy.
Scotland has great research capabilities, a strong base of SMEs looking to develop its bio-capabilities and the joined up support of the government with all its agencies in developing this opportunity. The IBioIC itself is an innovative organisation financially supported by the government and set up to to accelerate and de-risk the development of commercially viable, sustainable solutions for high-value manufacturing in chemistry-using and life science sectors; it plays a key role in delivering Scotland’s National Plan for IB, launched by a dedicated working group, the Scottish Industrial Biotechnology Development Group (SIBDG). As its newly appointed chair, I’m focused on achieving an IB turnover for Scotland of £900 million by 2025.
Scotland in the referendum on Brexit voted in favor of Europe. What effect will have the Brexit on the bioeconomy in the UK , from your point of view?
The fundamental reasons for developing the bioeconomy are the positive impact it has on sustainability, the environment and the ability to produce new and improved materials. None of these fundamentals are affected by Brexit. The development of the bioeconomy is strongly supported and hence funded by the European Union, UK Government and Scottish Government. As a result of Brexit we would hope and expect the UK and Scottish governments to continue to provide similar levels of support to those currently available.