Our collective ability to engineer biology together with the deployment of automation, AI and data-analytics in production processes, has advanced in leaps and bounds over the last two decades, spurring a biomanufacturing revolution. Economies of scale are enabling significant cost reductions in fundamental unit operations, which in turn have enabled a maturation of the overall biological engineering toolkit.
The perception of biology has shifted from a natural phenomenon to a technology that is fundamentally 'programmable' through genetic code, DNA – and companies in this sector have seen the cost of programming cells decline by 50% every year. This technology has driven the evolution of general 'genetic engineering' approaches into the relatively newly established field of synthetic biology, which broadly seeks to design and build new biological parts, processes and systems for a specific purpose.
A new wave of innovation in synthetic biology is now capturing the attention of different stakeholders. In 2020, global venture-capital funding and deals in biotech amounted to a record $36.6 billion, while biotech IPOs raised more than twice the amount of capital compared with 2019. It's moving beyond healthcare, too; more than half of the direct impact of new biotech applications over the next 10 to 20 years is likely to be felt in sectors such agriculture and food, consumer products and services, and materials and energy production.
This wave of innovation, together with an ongoing fall in costs, is opening the way to sustainable, scalable and innovative biomanufacturing solutions across value chains, enabling organisations across a diverse set of value chains. According to a recent study by Mckinsey, the economic benefits could be worth up to $4 trillion per year over the next 10-20 years.
Beyond its intrinsic economic, performance and environmental advantages, biomanufacturing is also one of the most promising areas of developing technology when it comes to solving major global crises such as microplastic pollution and pandemic prevention and preparedness. Over the next two decades, it is anticipated that biomanufacturing will unlock major advances in areas such as:
1. Bioremediation: microbes and enzymes are being developed that can metabolise wastewater contaminants and transform them into useful bioproducts.
2. Biosecurity: Localised biomanufacturing capabilities across developed and developing nations will enable rapid and effective responses to emerging pandemics.
3. Bioinnovation: The development of existing and novel ingredients and materials are enhancing value chains while offering alternatives to petrochemically derived alternatives.
Many individual and joint efforts are already being directed towards these solutions; however, there are still obstacles to fully realising the full potential of the biomanufacturing revolution. Currently there is a need to accelerate the feedback loop between biological design and product application to ensure commercial success. In order to power the diversity of applications emerging from this field over the next 20 years, significant effort is needed to grow and develop the future bioworkforce.
So how can we accelerate the biomanufacturing revolution? We suggest focusing on three main areas:
We need to significantly expand the biomanufacturing workforce in order to realise the full potential of the bioeconomy and to enable local, distributed manufacturing. Here's how:
Establish common skill and training requirements to facilitate better recognition of foreign formal qualifications and work experience to enable better workforce mobility. The shift towards automation and digitalisation in manufacturing more generally has created a common skillset across traditional manufacturing technologies that could be translated for the biomanufacturing workforce.
Greater investment in early STEM education, with an emphasis on critical thinking and analytical problem-solving today, can encourage tomorrow's leaders of the growing global bioeconomy
Increasing access to scale in both the development and deployment of biomanufacturing solutions is needed to accelerate growth of the bioeconomy. Here's how:
Strategic partnerships across large platform developers, application-specific technologies, and mature consumer-facing companies can accelerate biomanufacturing product development.
Platform developers, automation and AI are generating ever-larger data sets; these can be leveraged to support faster development and scale-up.
A network of manufacturing partners and technologies can be challenging to assemble, but this is key when demonstrating the first pilot or commercial batches of a given product. Innovative public-private programmes and joint investments in pre-competitive ffacilities (such as a flexible biomanufacturing co-op, for example) could enable more innovation and support product development.
Policy must keep up with the pace of innovation in order to facilitate impactful solutions while mitigating any potential risks. Furthermore, early regulatory missteps can delay the progress of the biomanufacturing revolution and constrain innovation, especially in more forward-looking applications. Instead, we should:
Identify new public-private partnerships that that support the manufacture and distribution of sustainable goods enabled by innovative biomanufacturing solutions, thus providing alternatives to petrochemically derived products.
Joint public-private cooperation to develop biosecurity strategies that can keep pace with innovation. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, pathogens do not respect borders; this highlights the need to include developing nations and the Global South in the planning and execution of biosecurity initiatives.
Prakash Iyer, Project Fellow, Shaping the Future of Advanced Manufacturing and Value Chains, World Economic Forum
Felipe Bezamat, Head of Advanced Manufacturing Industry, World Economic Forum