Fermenting a more sustainable future

August 23, 2023 Article V-Bio Ventures

In the battle against the climate crisis, precision fermentation presents a hopeful aid. Using microbes to create valuable materials, we can help to transform the global economy and shift away from harmful agricultural and industrial practices. However, despite the support of industry and Venture Capital cash, this field still faces many challenges. Though promising, we need further investment in this innovative technology before it can fully deliver on its potential for sustainable solutions.

By Charles Margarit from V-Bio Ventures

Precision fermentation is, at its core, an advanced form of brewing: using microbes to create specific substances. More specifically, this revolutionary technology fuses traditional fermentation and precision biology techniques, genetically reprogramming microorganisms such as yeasts and bacteria with instructions to produce select proteins, fats, and other vital molecules. These genetically engineered microorganisms serve as tiny but efficient cell factories, bypassing the conventional methods of manufacturing and production to yield high-value products in a sustainable manner.

One of the remarkable aspects of precision fermentation is its ability to convert waste materials – such as agricultural residues and industrial by-products – into high-value chemicals, nutritious foods, and clean-burning fuels, transforming trash into valuable commodities. Using biomass that would otherwise need to be disposed of as the feedstock for fermentation bioreactors, we could speed the transition to a circular, low-waste economy.

“Precision fermentation has the potential to revolutionize many industries, including through food and chemicals production.”

Precision fermentation has the potential to revolutionize many industries, including through food and chemicals production. Using vats of microbes to produce high-quality proteins, fats, and other essential vitamins offers an alternative to resource-intensive livestock farming and environmentally taxing chemical methods. By tapping into these resources, precision fermentation holds the promise of mitigating deforestation linked to agricultural use, and reducing the reliance on animal husbandry and petrochemicals, thereby alleviating the strain on land and biodiversity.

Furthermore, the complex machinery inside the cell can facilitate challenging chemical transformations without the use of organic solvents or precious metal catalysts. Within the last decade, these metabolic technologies have even developed the potential to utilize carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas responsible for climate change – as a feedstock to produce essential compounds. Thus, precision fermentation offers a pathway to minimize our dependence on expensive catalysts and petroleum. Replacing traditional methods of fuel production enables the generation of clean-burning fuels from renewable feedstocks. This would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but can also contribute to the diversification of our energy sources, fostering a more sustainable and resilient energy landscape.

From fragrances to biofuels

Myriad companies already exemplify the versatility and transformative impact of precision fermentation. Ginkgo Bioworks – now a giant in the biomanufacturing industry – employs microbiology to produce sustainable fragrances, flavor compounds, and cosmetic ingredients. Their approach – generating low-volume, high-margin compounds – is perhaps the most logical current means to capture value with precision fermentation, as it presents a scenario where microbial production can legitimately outcompete chemical synthesis.

Plenty of other companies also use precision fermentation for a range of substances. Perfect Day creates animal-free dairy products by fermenting microorganisms that produce authentic dairy proteins. Mycorena and Mush Labs use fermentation to produce mycoproteins for meat alternative products, while Clara Foods produces egg proteins for use in baking and mock omelets. Impossible Foods employs precision fermentation to produce heme protein, which gives their soy protein patties a meat-like appearance and taste. In the renewable energy sector, LanzaTech converts industrial waste gases into sustainable biofuels using precision fermentation.

“VC funding for precision fermentation in Europe peaked in 2022 with over EUR 350 million invested.”

These companies demonstrate the broad applications of precision fermentation across various sectors. With such enormous promise, investors have been getting onboard: VC funding for precision fermentation in Europe peaked in 2022 with over EUR 350 million invested. However, if the general trends of 2023 continue, we can expect to see a decrease in funding, with only a little over EUR 200 million invested. This is worrying to see, as early funding for further innovation is sorely needed, because the field still faces many challenges.

Hurdles on the path to true sustainability

The allure surrounding the future of fermentation is undeniably captivating. However, there are important considerations we need to address as we look to transform our production methods. At this point, the cost of precision fermentation compared to conventional techniques often results in higher-priced products, hindering widespread adoption and accessibility for consumers. One major hurdle is scaling up production to match or surpass the output of traditional methods. Currently we would require entire city blocks dedicated to fermentation facilities to meet the demand of even a small niche market. This casts doubt on the practicality of applications such as substituting cow meat with heterologous protein substrates in our burgers. The true solution might lie in reducing our consumption of meat instead.

“On all fronts, we need to ensure we are not simply trading one problem for another.”

Complicating things further, the energy requirements of precision fermentation pose a significant barrier, particularly for startups and small businesses. Bioreactor operation relies primarily on electricity, often produced using fossil fuels, as renewable alternatives can’t yet keep up with the high energy demands. Although this doesn’t negate the superior sustainability afforded by precision fermentation, it does mean that life cycle analyses are crucial if we are to accurately demonstrate environmental impact. Proclaimed valorization of agricultural side streams and waste must also be scrutinized, as they may drive up costs and rely on enzyme/substrate processing technologies that are not yet developed. On all fronts, we need to ensure we are not simply trading one problem for another.

A beacon of hope

Precision fermentation emerges as a powerful beacon of hope, poised to combat the ongoing climate crisis and mitigating the environmental impact of food, fuel, and chemical production. Positioned at the forefront of the circular bioeconomy, it spearheads the transition from linear to circular systems, harnessing the wisdom of nature itself.

Read this article to learn how the SUPERYEAST project is improving industry sustainability in beer, bread, and bioethanol!

However, in a relatively young industry with the tendency to greenwash and oversell, it is key for investors to discriminate projects early on that make little economic or energetic sense from those that hold potential. Recognition of the inherent shortcomings of this burgeoning field will push us forward to rise above the challenges. Cheaper substrate can lower initial costs for commodity production, but true transformation of industry requires improvements in processing, engineering, and purification technologies to make the whole life cycle greener. It behooves us to push ahead, pursuing a journey of discovery, as we unlock the potential to reshape industries and cultivate a sustainable future that benefits both humanity and the planet.


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V-Bio Ventures

We are a life sciences fund investing throughout Europe in start-up and early-stage companies with high growth potential. Our articles cover investment-related topics in life sciences, including innovation trends, the latest business themes and exciting updates on our portfolio companies.

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