“Innovation is the key for the transformation towards a bioeconomy, and industrial biotechnology is the driving force and innovation engine for this megatrend”. Jürgen Eck, CEO BRAIN AG, talks with Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview, the Most Innovative Bioeconomy CEO 2018 voted by our readers, talks about his company, the bioeconomy and the concept of innovation.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Dr. Eck, first of all, congratulations on the recognition as the most innovative bioeconomy CEO of 2018. What is innovation in the bioeconomy, from your point of view?
Innovation is the key for the transformation towards a bioeconomy, and industrial biotechnology is the driving force and innovation engine for this megatrend. We at BRAIN understand industrial biotechnology as a disruptive enabler for novel solutions that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago. It allows us creating completely new product ideas and industry solutions and new economic value. At the end, these innovations pave the way for a transformation of our industries operating with less or entirely without the deployment of fossil or other resources that are finite in supply or carry other disadvantages for humankind and for nature.
To actively shape this trend and economically participate we have a clear focus for new industrial applications made possible with our three product categories, which are bioactive natural compounds, customized enzymes and high performance microorganisms or producer strains. With these, we currently provide solutions for three major markets: Nutrition & Health, Skin Care and Industrial BioSolutions.
And what is the innovation achieved by BRAIN AG?
We all know that we need healthier nutrition. To support this goal, we have set up an industry-leading program for taste modification based on unique cell-based assays derived from the human tongue for fast and reliable screening huge amounts of molecules from edible plants. The final aim is to reduce sugar, calories or salt in food and beverages – without any compromise to taste perception. In the associated DOLCE program, we have started working with industry partners to create the first product developments based on our natural sweeteners.
Another innovation addressing an increasing problem is Aurase®, an enzymatic active ingredient developed by us for the treatment of open wounds. The active mechanism was inspired by the common green bottle fly – or rather its maggots, which are used for wound therapies. The spin-off SolasCure Ltd. is now taking care of a market launch.
In order to deal with CO2 we have on offer microbes that can metabolize the climate gas into intermediates for bioplastic production. In addition, we have bacteria in our BioArchive with very special traits for disruptive Green and Urban Mining solutions and a circular economy. These bacteria are able to extract precious and technology metals out of ores or waste streams such as e-scrap in a highly environmentally friendly way.
What do you think are your company’s main achievements?
BRAIN is seen by many as a pioneer and a proof of concept that a bioeconomy company can sustainably grow and establish itself as an increasingly recognized player and preferred R&D partner next to the big flagships of the petrochemical-based industry. In 2016, BRAIN was the first bioeconomy company successfully going public on the Frankfurt stock exchange.
Let me put this in perspective: when BRAIN was founded 25 years ago by a handful of biologists, including myself, we did not start out with a blockbuster idea for a quick commercialization, but with the long-term vision to provide biotech innovationslong before the notion of a bioeconomy had taken firm root in industry and society alike. Over the years, we have accumulated unique expertise to make industrial use out of nature’s biodiversity. This is why we can we provide a competitive market advantage and unique selling propositions for our industry partners.
Your next steps in 2019?
One of our aims is to contribute to reducing product losses resulting from microbial decay. In this respect, we have just announced a first partnership with a global beverage giant for our newly established FRESCO program, which is about nature-based preservation ingredients. With our partner, we want to address the growing demand for sustainably produced and healthy beverage products.
In the months ahead of us, we aim at expanding the FRESCO program to more market segments that are just as sensitive in terms of hygiene and cleanliness as food and beverages. Innumerable products need protection from infestation by bacteria, viruses or fungi. Therefore, we also aim at providing bioactive substances for medical products or paints and for cleaning and other household products.
However, FRESCO is just one example out of our product pipeline, which we want to bring closer to markets in 2019 through the joint development of tailor-made solutions with industry partners or through the preparation of our own product sales.
What does it mean for you to be voted the most innovative CEO?
Personally, I feel very honored by this vote. However, I understand it as a vote for the entire BRAIN team. The team comes up with disruptive ideas and new industrial solutions for the bioeconomy. I am proud to be part of this environment as a co-founder of the company and now CEO. Moreover, I am very pleased that our joint commitment has left positive traces in the growing bioeconomy community. The growing internationalization of business activities is an important strategic goal for us. I take the vote for BRAIN as an indication that we are on the right track.
After the first two CEOs voted by our readers as the most Innovative coming from Australia, you are the first from Europe. From your point of view what are the strengths of the bioeconomy in Europe?
Europe is very strong in education and scientific excellence. The science community is well organized and connected through numerous institutions that benefit from cross-divisional projects and multinational exchanges. This is a unique proposition we should never forget, especially because Europe is relatively slow and, compared to North America and parts of Asia, much weaker in developing ideas into products and bringing these to market.
What is your opinion about the updated bioeconomy strategy?
A variety of programs have been launched to strengthen the bioeconomy. In recent weeks, we have seen inspiring bioeconomy initiatives from the European Union, the OECD or national governments such as Germany or the UK. The second Global Bioeconomy Summit, which was held in April 2018 in Berlin once more, also underscored the topic’s international importance. More than 50 countries have now launched research and development initiatives for the bioeconomy.
However, to benefit more from this megatrend we still have a lot of homework to do in Europe. For example, to fully mature, we need a very different culture and suitable political frameworks for making use of venture capital and private equity. This is still underdeveloped in Europe.
In addition, a more decisive support for R&D expenditures undertaken by pioneering industries could trigger an increased economic momentum. There is a mismatch with Europe on the one hand being perceived as a political and scientific driver for a more sustainable future, while on the other hand, we need to become much better and faster in acting on our goals.