Manufacturing is a crude science. We destroy mountains to extract heavy metals, which we then cook at high pressures and temperatures to make things like plastic, nylon, and rubber. Contrast this with nature: living cells and organisms can make all the chemicals needed to thrive in a variety of environments, often requiring little more than carbon atoms and some sunlight.
“Nature seems to have a much better solution,” says Karim Engelmark Cassimjee, CEO of EnginZyme. His company sees using biology as a production platform not just as a pure sustainability game, but as a trillion-dollar opportunity for the global market.
On Wednesday, April 22nd EnginZyme announced that they have raised €6.4 million in a Series A Funding round led by Sofinnova Partners, bringing the company’s total funding to over €10 million. An offshoot of Arrhenius Laboratory at Stockholm Universitythe six-year-old company has been quietly working on a new technology that aims to revolutionize the impact of synthetic biology in the manufacture of everything from food ingredients to biomaterials to active pharmaceutical ingredients.
Broadly speaking, companies are beginning to adopt organic manufacturing as their preferred method of production. After all, what is good for the environment is usually good for business (less energy, fewer resources, less chemical processing and lower costs). Biomanufacturing accounts for a growing proportion of the products we use every day. As an an example, High-performance bioelectronics will likely end up in your next smartphone, laptop, watch, or television not because they are organic, but simply because they work better.
Biomanufacturing – without the cell?
But what’s amazing about EnginZyme’s approach is this: it’s all accomplished through the use of cell-free synthetic biology, a technique that can harness the power to build with biology without needing the cell itself — and all the complexity that comes along with it.
“Our platform mimics fermentation,” Cassimjee says, discussing the age-old process of using biology to make everything from kimchee to beer. Fermentation has been a cornerstone of the biotech industry for decades. But EnginZyme’s technology promises a 40 percent reduction in capital expenditures (manufacturing equipment and maintenance costs) and a 70 percent reduction in energy consumption.
“We use biological and enzymatic catalysts instead of metal catalysts at lower temperature and pressure,” says Cassimjee. This is a game changer that could position EnginZyme to compete with the slower-moving giants of the chemical industry and enable smaller-scale, on-demand manufacturing – something this post-COVID world and its need for localized supply chains is craving demand loudly.
Takeover of the chemical industry
Cassimjee wants to take on nothing less than the entire chemical industry, from plastics to bulk chemicals. But the task will not necessarily be easy for a startup. “For each application, we have to build a chemical process and a production facility,” he says. And the endgame comes with a proven large-scale production strategy to turn chemistry into everything the world needs.
The fixed bed technology that EnginZymes uses is already well understood, and its separation technology is also well understood. The secret ingredient of EnginZyme – the advance that has the potential to change the paradigm of bio-based manufacturing – is a special material that can bind to enzymes while allowing them to maintain their functionality.
With traditional chemistry, “you put everything in the tank and mix it,” says Cassimjee. This chemistry depends on enzymes, the proteins that drive a chemical reaction. For example, when we hear about a company that engineered a bacterium to convert sugar into a high-value chemical, it’s actually a series of enzymes in the bacteria that do the hard work of converting sugar into a chemical. The bacteria simply act as tiny tanks that produce and mix the enzymes, facilitating the fermentation process that makes chemicals useful to us.
But with this new technology, the biological enzymes are fixed and the various ingredients flow through the fixed enzymes and the end product flows out the other end.
The ultimate manufacturing platform
As I’ve written before, the synthetic biology and protein design world is now poised to design enzymes for all sorts of novel applications. And because enzymes are long chains of 20 different amino acids, the range of different enzymes available is greater than the number of stars in the universe, giving first-order design engineers infinite design space to work within.
“If a company has a specific molecule in mind, we can help them manufacture it,” says Cassimjee.
EnginZyme works with companies that use biocatalysts – biologically produced enzymes – to scale their processes to industrial production scales.
By separating the enzymes from the bacteria, EnginZyme greatly simplifies the chemical production process. It greatly simplifies the process by removing the external chemical reactions and energy required to keep the bacteria alive. Instead of using a large bacterial vat that is expensive to set up and run, companies can use an efficient column filled with concentrated enzymes that continuously feed sugar at the top and get their product out at the bottom.
As Cassimjee describes it, “It’s like comparing someone who builds a car by hand to Henry Ford and the automated assembly line.”
One example of how EnginZyme’s technology will impact us is in the world of nutrition. The sugar that we add to our cakes, cookies and sauces is homogeneous, which means that every molecule (sucrose) is the same. But that’s not natural, and it’s certainly not healthy. I have written about this before Companies developing healthy alternatives to sugarhow Codex with Stevia. EnginZyme’s technology could enable a future where we have access to many different types of healthy sugars and sugar substitutes, each suited to a different specific use case.
We can observe the same with plastics or other molecules. We currently have different plastic molecules that are used for different purposes (e.g. plastic bottles vs. plastic bags), but in the future we could develop greener alternatives to all of these, by making them from waste or making them biodegradable.
Invest and produce in the post-COVID world
Many in the startup world would tell you that venture funding is all but frozen at the moment as funds assess which companies can survive in the new world we live in. With that in mind, for EnginZyme to be able to raise such an impressive round of funding, someone has to believe they’re into something truly transformative.
Biological manufacturing isn’t just about making our current materials cheaper. It’s also about bringing incredible new products to market that surpass the best products that conventional chemistry can give us today. By learning from and building on the diversity that nature has given us, we can make a better product in a better way.
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Many thanks to Calvin Schmidt for additional research and coverage in this article. I am the founder of SynBioBetaand some of the companies I write about – including Codexis –are sponsors of SynBioBeta Conference and weekly summary. Here is the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.