“At Union level, the European Green Deal is surely a clear and strong signal to many industries, and this will help our clients to gain further competing edges vs parties that still struggle to understand the benefit of implementing biosynthesis into their processes as tool to increase their competitiveness and sustainability.” To say it – in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Cyrille Pauthenier, Ceo and co-founder of Abolis, an industrial biotech company located in France. Pauthenier is graduated from École Normale Supérieure de Paris where he studied fundamental chemistry and biology. In 2011, he specialized in synthetic biology. In 2014, after obtaining his Ph.D., Cyrille co-founded Abolis, with the aim of using biology to accelerate the ecological transition of chemical industry.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
We are experiencing a very difficult period all over the world, due to the spread of SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 (“coronavirus”). What consequences can this crisis have for a bioeconomy SME?
In the short term, from our perspective, this was first of all an acute crisis: our teleworking tools had to be powered-up, and more important of all strict health and safety procedures and controls had to be deployed to minimize the chance our our team members being exposed to unnecessary risks during work or permuting to work. It was possible to process the bulk of such “acute” phase in a few weeks.
In the medium term, we created an ad-hoc “emergency team” to put in place the national «de-confinement safety protocol» in the company. Luckily our national government (French) stepped-in with significant credits and social support measures to help covering for some of the costs incurred by confinement. From an external relations point of view, several of our clients and perspective partners were also affected, and during the first months of the interactions our normal communications lines were affected, as were congresses and events, important tools for innovative SMEs to showcase their products and services, their cancellation surely created some inconvenience.
Yet, on the long term, we are optimistic, in fact the impact of the Governments-imposed lock-downs following the SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 outbreak have helped many industries and groups to realize that the current system is not sustainable. In particular, we are referring to the tendency of European companies to rely on far-away-located suppliers and remove sourcing of essentials compounds and ingredients, as part of the overall “shift to Asia” or as it used to be called “de-localisation.” Following this outbreak, more and more industries have in fact come to realize that they will not be able to survive to future outbreaks if they do not quickly shift back at least the core of their supply chain to Europe, relying on local SMEs for the critical part of it. This is a mayor shift in mindset that will surely help bioeconomy SMEs in particular, as technologies enabling the conversion of local European biomass into valuable compounds and ingredients could be the most cost effective, sustainable and secured (security of supply) was to ensure our chemical, F&F and cosmetics industries ability to source their needed ingredients.
What is Abolis’ main business?
Abolis develops tailor-made bio-processes, with the help of enhanced microbes, enabling its clients to source sustainable, innovative, bio-based molecules and ingredients within the F&F, Cosmetics, Nutrients and Pharmaceutical markets.
More specifically, Abolis is a white biotechnology company. We develop bio-processes for the production of high added value molecules, for our customers but also molecules that we have selected. We are specialized in complex molecules, with long metabolic routes, in yeast. Most of our customer projects starts with the customer question: “could you help us produce this molecule, that many tones per year, that price?”. We have everything to answer this question, build the business case, develop the strain and help you scale-up or sub-contract the scale-up and production of your molecule. Our key differentiation on the market is our capacity to build tailor-made development programs, in collaboration with all available internal resources of the client company. Abolis as “Biosynthesis Architect” is well versed in mapping large companies product portfolio for ingredients and intermediates that could be displaced by developing new biosynthetic production process to produce the same with the help of enhanced microbes (bioprocess). This can then be addressed by setting up development projects for bringing to scale the highest priority molecules: this is our core business (offensive biosynthesis strategy). In parallel, Abolis can also help to design and deploy the most suitable defensive biosynthesis strategy, up to patent filing and monitoring (defensive biosynthesis strategy).
How can a SME compete in a sector dominated by big corporations?
We hold the record for the most complex molecules produced by metabolic engineering so far, which will be public in a few months. In Abolis, we deal on a everyday basis with pathways containing 10 to 20 heterologuous genes. The pathway we work with have up to 45 steps from sugar to product. We have the genetic tools, the analytical tools and the know how on how to build, stabilize, equilibrate co-factors, and enhance Titre, Yield and Rate in the complex of such long pathways. This allows us to believe that Metabolic Engineering is a game for experts and for people who are able to fine tune their offer and missions to the very specific needs of their clients and the specific project.
Within that context, we do not see larger players as having a competitive advantage compared to us or other SMEs, unless they start selling their services below cost level, but this is a general story in any market and covered by fair competition laws.
As a matter of fact, we believe that our current size and the size we envision to reach in the coming few years, to be most suitable for the work we seek to do, and the same to have a modularity that can be scaled linearly based on the specific client and project need.
Finally, as a smaller organization, we have a clear competitive advantage in our ability to enter into exclusive agreements for specific class of molecules and ingredients and markets, something that several of the parties we are in discussion with find interesting.
What is needed at system level to encourage the growth of a start-up?
The system-level is by definition a complex one, rich in emergent properties which are do not make themselves self-evident if not in intricate manners. Surely much can be done at regulatory level both by member states and Union level. We are rather lucky to have started in France, a country which has been proactively supporting innovation in general and bioeconomy in particular from the early stages, as we can see from “our” track record of leading bioeconomy clusters, and large number of bio-refineries in operation nowadays.
At Union level, the European Green Deal is surely a clear and strong signal to many industries, and this will help our clients to gain further competing edges vs parties that still struggle to understand the benefit of implementing biosynthesis into their processes as tool to increase their competitiveness and sustainability. More binding targets for carbon reduction at European Union level, complemented by stronger custom taxes for products produced via unsustainable processes in remote and less environmentally sensitive locations would indeed play a key role in accelerate the transition.
What are your next steps to grow the business?
Our next steps as an innovative bioeconomy SME, are, unsurprisingly, to grow our turnover and portfolio of clients, to maintaining our technical assets at the highest quality both in terms of state-of-the-art and in-house ad hoc proprietary ones, and possibly more important to maintain our internal team of “metabolism architects” well motivated, stimulated and challenged with the most stimulating challenges that can emerge when operating at the cutting edge of the biosynthesis revolution, as part of the bioeconomy.
Finally, it is also our intention to spend a bit more time to broadcast our latest activities and successes, as we have, as many SME have done before us, come to realize that visibility is a critical for the medium term sustainable growth of our organisation: we will try to invest more in contributing to the overall bioeconomy agenda in Europe, and more proactively share our opinions on critical regulatory and market access matters whose improvement would benefit our customers.