Bringing industrial biotechnology to the next level with blockchain technology

Rethinking the way we cooperate and trying radically new ways of interactions and cooperation models

 A rapidly growing world population aspires to live a long, healthy and comfortable life. But shrinking resources, growing waste problems and climate extremes are factors which limit these aspirations and create a latent danger for social unrest. We need different value chains, new technologies and new products which encompass the whole value chain, with radically new manufacturing methods for affordable and sustainable products assuring economic growth and personal prosperity for 8 to 9 billion people. We have already addressed some resource problems in a number of blogs and highlighted how biotechnology can be part of the solution (changes provoked by pandemic, bioplastic, chemistry and biotechnology, and waste water treatment plant).

The chemistry, pharma and life science sector are Switzerland’s largest export industry since 2009 reaching a record value of CHF 114.6 billion in 2020. A significant proportion of this success is due to biopharmaceuticals and immunological products. Considering the country size, Switzerland is actually one of the leading countries. But when it comes to other sectors where organic chemistry is key, the industry still persists with outdated approaches and methods because of the expensive only partially depreciated assets and the development costs for new approaches. New approaches include the application of artificial intelligence, the optimal combination of chemo- and biosynthesis, new process data management systems, reactor and plant design, industry 4.0, Internet of Things, simultaneous engineering and others. They require interdisciplinary cross-industry and cross-departmental collaborations. As a consequence, we ideally are innovative not only in the laboratory, but also in legal frameworks and unusual cooperation models.

The Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (SATW) and the Swiss Biotech Association (SBA) launched an “Industrial Biotechnology” initiative, to identify the requirements of the hundreds of Swiss companies using chemical synthesis for their business. The situation for companies producing small molecule pharmaceuticals, intermediates, nutraceuticals, vitamins, plant and animal health products, cosmetics and many others is still relatively comfortable. However, the road ahead will be bumpy. The mentioned SATW / SBA initiative is still in its accelerating phase and needs to gain momentum. It is a way to get stakeholders to think outside the box and discuss and shape the future together

Blockchain as a tool for exchange and innovation?

The Swiss Industrial Biocatalysis Consortium is used to illustrate the intention why to investigate the potential of blockchain in this context (see also: The Swiss Industrial Biocatalysis Consortium (SIBC): Past, Present and Future. S. Hanlon, CHIMIA (2020) 74(5): 342-344). In 2004, Ciba (now BASF), Givaudan, Lonza, Novartis, Roche, Sigma-Adrich (now Merck) and Syngenta (now Syngenta Group) created the SIBC. This consortium was open to any Swiss company actively involved in using biocatalysis. The reason to start the SIBC was that companies had spent large amounts to develop enzymes, microbial strains and manufacturing procedure, which could be shared to create win-win situations by promoting know-how exchange. Integral to this was the creation of a shared database containing strains, which had been successfully applied in biotransformation by the member companies, and a physical exchange of strains under a bilateral MTA. Fifteen years later, the SIBC is still alive, but the original goal has proven to be difficult to achieve for several reasons. For example, the lengthy process involved with finalizing the contracts made the completion of a subsequent enzyme exchange round prohibitively difficult. Excel tables for enzyme and strain collection proved not very useful. In addition, the technology has changed. 20 years ago, wild type strains were the norm in industrial biotechnology. With the explosion of numbers of genes in public databases and plummeting costs associated with ordering them, in silico information has become increasingly important. However, enzymes and strains are not the only variables in the equation. The above-mentioned approaches need a much more intensive intra- and cross-industry exchange within Switzerland to maintain the competitive advantages. And that’s where blockchain or other information technology tools enter the picture.

How to proceed?

The term blockchain is mostly associated with cryptocurrencies – about 2’000 types exist today with bitcoin being the most prominent one. Nevertheless, blockchain applications are increasingly discussed in legal transactions, healthcare or logistics. Biotechnological applications are per se data-rich, highly controlled and connected processes where digital tools combined with genetic engineering will be key for the future. A digital technology and tool making people comfortable with uploading data and exchanging data in the Swiss industrial environment is a huge competitive advantage. We should keep in mind that Switzerland is one of the leading locations in the area of distributed ledger technology (DLT) and blockchain.

Experts agreed that the technology is not yet mature and will take at least another five to ten years to reach production maturity. Challenges include the existence of different, incompatible blockchains, the demand for interoperability, lack of scalability, high energy consumption and inefficiency (see also: SATW Blog C. Schärer, Forum Blockchain: Grosses Potenzial - viele Fragezeichen).

“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it” (A. de Saint-Exupéry). To safeguard the future of the concerned industry, it seems appropriate to investigate early the opportunity, to study possible ways how to get there, to explore the benefits and beneficiaries, and to find out what it would take specifically to reach the goal.

The undertaking is probably best tackled by a small consortium consisting of member of the joint SBA / SATW platform Industrial Biotech (IB) group, the SBCI and a Applied University specialized in information technology.

I had the opportunity to shortly present this idea to René Hüsler, SATW member and head of the Lucerne School of Computer Science and Information Technology. He judges the concept and approach described in this blog as realistic and an interesting topic for the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts.

We are in the process of contacting and exchanging with stakeholders to formulate a very first concept. Do you feel addressed? Then please contact us!

Hans-Peter Meyer Expertinova AG, SATW Member, Biotechnology/Bioinformatics