Bio-based technology and manufacturing offer many opportunities to meet human needs sustainably, at worldwide scales, in harmony with nature. That’s a great goal, but as the industry grows, there are some key limitations of capacity that must be addressed, or risk missing the chance to realize the change we want to see.
Most biotechnology deals with microbes — microscopic forms of life that can be more easily controlled or even programmed, and organized in vast numbers to produce specific molecules or materials. Traditionally, that means putting a bunch of yeast or bacteria into a big steel tank, creating the right conditions and adding the right nutrients (maybe with a few genetic edits), and letting them do their thing.
This is a fermentation, basically a high tech version of what happens when you make sauerkraut, and it’s how much of biotechnology makes stuff. It’s how we produce the citric acid common to soda, candy, and countless other household products. As biotech sets its sights on the goal of transforming huge industries like textiles and factory farming, there is a concern over whether the fermentation capacity exists to meet the scale of the demand that entails. Put simply, there aren’t enough tanks. It’s a real and seemingly inevitable challenge that will likely create massive roadblocks for new companies.
Until now, the sensible thing for a biotech company to do was leave the steel tank problem to someone else: Contract with someone whose business is supplying tanks or facilities to handle the fermentation. But biotechnology is working towards scales that will dwarf current capacity, and the supply of tanks is simply not there to meet the demand. The numbers are genuinely hard to wrap one’s head around — for instance, various precision fermentation technologies and companies are aimed at replacing or displacing meat with more sustainable proteins. There are some 300 million tons of meat consumed every year, which is roughly 500,000 times the current capacity of fermentation.
For the company microbe or fermentation process, scale is the hardest part, and the question of capacity could limit developing the important breakthroughs. Call it the fermentation bottleneck. It poses an obstacle to promising new molecules that stand to make a real difference in the world, but may get left behind as the effort to scale up with consistently and economically. Startups run lean, so it’s hard to argue that they should take on extra capital expenses and the technical challenges of building and operating the tanks. But keys breakthrough can and often do get discovered in the most difficult stages of scaling up.
There have been moonshot proposals for expanding this capacity, but even the most optimistic forecasts are two or three years out. Meanwhile, almost all of the existing fermentation capacity from the biggest contract providers like GSM and EVOnik — which alone commands some 4,000 cubic meters of fermentation space — is already spoken for, be it for pharmaceuticals, for other food products, or bio commodities such as lactic acid.
It seems to be time for biotech to ‘think outside the tank’. This could mean working with new model organisms (there are a familiar cast of microbial characters that have many benefits but also limitations), and developing new forms of fermentation or indoor farming. Biotech likes to compare its microbes to ‘software’ and the fermentation equipment to hardware; Developing former while outsourcing the latter challenge risks missing big opportunities not just to maximize scale, but also to miss advances that could transform the field for everyone else.
This is important, because biotechnology is beginning to produce things that go well beyond yeasts and bacteria. Companies like Biomason are growing new form of non-extractive concrete; Aquabounty is developing indoor salmon that grow twice as fast; Mosspiration is turning moss — yes, moss — into microfactories for useful chemicals. Such technologies could change the world for the better, and the path developing new forms of cultivation and fermentation, which means taking on the expense of developing those technologies in addition to the organisms themselves. It’s a big bet, but there’s no telling how big the payoff could be.
One of the payoffs for a company that sidesteps the bottleneck this way is greater vertical integration. That translates to more control and likelihood of success when the inevitable surprises pop up — the problem solving can all be handled in-house, rather than in conversation with a tank supplier. Thinking this way from the outset also makes it possible to start with the end in mind, and actually leverage both constraints and strengths to maximize output when the scaling starts to pick up. This obviously costs more up front, but given the possibilities of new biotechnologies, assuming the product delivers on its promise, there’s a high chance it will pay off.
The innovation and potential of biotech is nothing less than world-changing, so it’s critical to crack the looming challenges of scale for fermentation. Given the quality and rate of innovation, there’s little doubt these problems will be solved. There’s also no doubt it’s going to require escaping the tank mentality that is now a legacy of the old way of doing things.