“Biotech is becoming increasingly important to the mainstream chemical industry as the demand for more sustainable solutions intensifies. Biotech is especially well-suited to help with some of the industry’s biggest challenges”. To say it – in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Christophe Schilling, founder and CEO of Genomatica, a widely-recognized bioengineering leader for the chemical industry. The San Diego-based biotechnology company develops and licenses bio-based manufacturing processes for the production of intermediate and basic chemicals.
Since being named CEO in May 2009, Christophe Schilling has led Genomatica to widespread recognition as a leader in industrial biotechnology, with a commercialized first process, top-tier licensees, strong investors and an unrivaled string of awards for engineering (Kirkpatrick), science (EPA Presidential Green Chemistry), industry leadership (voted #1 Hottest three years in a row by Biofuels Digest), and company culture (The Scientist as a Best Place to Work). Schilling frequently speaks on industry trends at major conferences and serves as a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Genomatica is a widely-recognized bioengineering technology leader for the chemical industry. From your point of view, is the future of the chemical industry really bio-based?
Yes – biotech is becoming increasingly important to the mainstream chemical industry as the demand for more sustainable solutions intensifies. Biotech is especially well-suited to help with some of the industry’s biggest challenges. Biotech can give chemical producers the power to help their customers deliver more sustainable products and let them deploy economical “right-sized”, regional plants. It’s already delivering at commercial scale for high-volume intermediate chemicals, like butanediol, and for numerous specialty and fine chemicals. It’s also great at things that traditional chemistry has trouble with, like using the specificity of biotechnology to add to product performance, eliminate byproducts, produce specific stereoisomers and other complex organic molecules. We have also seen a growing list of examples where the functional performance in downstream applications is improved through the use of a bio-based version of the same chemical as compared to conventional petroleum-based chemistry.
What do you think are the most important milestones the chemical industry must achieve in the next 5 years?
I see four things. First, develop better ways to describe the environmental footprint of chemicals they produce, not just at the plant-level, but extending across downstream product value chains. Second, set goals for improving that. Third, increase collaboration with brand owners and retailers so they’re more aware of when, where and how they can leverage the greater sustainability of biobased ingredients and to be responsive to their needs. And fourth, improve the industry’s “economic resilience” by using biotech strategically, to diversify feedstocks, and avoid large cyclical swings in regional capacity, price and profits.
Last 30 September Novamont opened the world’s first plant for the production of bio-butanediol. Genomatica also has an agreement with BASF for the production of this chemical building block. What are the plans of BASF?
First – I want to recognize and share my appreciation and respect for Novamont and their CEO, Catia Bastioli. They are genuine leaders in sustainable chemicals and materials, and in moving toward a circular economy. They have backed up their words with steel in the ground and true commitment and I’m proud that they are one of our partners.
Regarding BASF – yes, they signed a license agreement with us, and together, we later expanded that agreement, both in potential capacity and geography. We are not allowed to comment, though, on plans by our licensees that they have not already made public.
In recent years, as well as Novamont and BASF, Genomatica has concluded many agreements with leading companies in the chemical industry: Braskem, Versalis, Cargill. How relevant is the partnership in the development of the bioeconomy?
Partners are essential to fully realize the benefits of biotechnology. We believe this so strongly that it is highlighted in our company’s core purpose – that we will lead a transition to more sustainable materials by being united with leaders. As an example, let me describe how partnering can impact butadiene and the products made from it, like car tires. The industry has an issue in that butadiene is generally produced as a byproduct of other processes. The desire is to have process technologies that are designed to produce it “on-purpose”. A biobased process can reduce supply volatility and price volatility at the same time that it improves sustainability. In our partnership with Versalis, for example, they have extensive experience with catalytic and downstream technologies that are specific to the butadiene rubber value chain, as well as a deep sense of end-user customer needs; we bring biotech that solves upstream production challenges. Together we can get to meaningful results faster and at lower cost. As another example, consider our partnership with Cargill. Here, our partnership enables an additional approach to a complete manufacturing solution for biobased chemicals, especially for firms that may not yet want to build their own biobased plant. They may prefer instead to leverage the experience and competencies of a company like Cargill in biobased manufacturing, who can also bring solutions for feedstock, financial hedging, and plant services and/or financing, construction and operation. The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
With Braskem and Versalis, Genomatica has agreements to develop process technologies to produce bio-butadiene, which affects the tire industry. Separately, Lego has announced plans to make their own bricks using bioplastic. What is the state of the art for the production of this chemical building block from renewable sources?
We have come a long way in developing biobased butadiene with our partners Braskem and Versalis. As with your earlier question, we can only speak to what we have already announced publicly. With Versalis, we have successfully achieved pilot-scale production of butadiene and shown samples of bio-rubber made with it, which I believe is the most advanced demonstration of bio-butadiene technology in the world to date. With Braskem, we have previously announced lab-scale production of butadiene via a direct, single-step process that is very challenging technically.
What are from your point of view the main differences between the US and Europe in the field of bioeconomy?
As a generalization and over-simplification – Europe has tended to be more progressive and action-oriented than the U.S. in developing a Bioeconomy. There also appears to be both greater supply chain and consumer awareness and interest in sustainability, as well as greater government incentives. We believe that interest and demand by U.S. consumers and brands is increasing.
Bioeconomy and circular economy are two increasingly prevalent economic paradigms, but that public opinion still does not understand. How can stakeholders and authorities better communicate the benefits of bio-based products compared to those of fossil origin?
Informing and including the public in policy, economic and environmental decisions benefits from a long-term program of education, awareness, and simple, real-world examples that people can relate to. Biobased products and production plants can provide tangible examples and success stories, especially when translated into specific savings in resources or greenhouse gas emissions, or into job creation. It’s important to focus more on what it all means to someone than on the details of the technology.