From sperm whale to chemistry to biotechnology

The world is running short of many raw materials, a fact painfully demonstrated during the past covid pandemic. We experienced shortages of masks, ventilators or pharmaceuticals, such as relaxant drugs required for the intubation of Covid patients. However, the pandemic was not the root cause, but merely an accelerant. Also, manufacturers of all kinds of plastic product found themselves in crisis, including vaccine producers who use plastic containers in their manufacturing process. Likewise, construction sites were afflicted by shortages of wood, steel or copper. All these shortfalls were noticed and a topic in the daily press. But other raw materials are going unnoticed by the broad public, although it also affects important industrial sectors for Switzerland.

All raw materials for the flavors & fragrances industry used to be extracted from plants, with the exception of musk, ambergris and some other raw materials that are of animal origin. Ambergris is an excretion of the sperm whale, which develops a pleasant odor profile through oxidative processes. -(-)Ambrox is the most important compound and occasionally more expensive than gold. Needless to say, with an estimated annual consumption of 100 tons, natural sourcing is impossible. It is therefore not surprising that the flavors and fragrances industry has relied on organic chemical synthesis for almost 100 years. Today, most molecules are chemically synthesized and less than 5 percent are derived from plants, although they are all of natural origin.

Thus, the situation is similar to small molecule pharmaceuticals: About 70 percent of current small molecule pharmaceuticals are structurally inspired by or even derived from natural products. The vast majority, however, are produced by organic chemical synthesis. But these target molecules are becoming increasingly complex, which is also pushing organic chemistry to its limits and causing its E-factors* to skyrocket. This means that different Swiss companies such as Azad Pharma AG, Bachem, Corden Pharma, Dottikon Exclusive Synthesis, Firmenich, Givaudan, Lonza, Siegfried, Vifor and many others have a common denominator and similar challenge:

  • All use organic chemical synthesis as a key in-house technology for production. Evolva is presently the only Swiss company that exclusively uses biotechnology for the production of nature-based ingredients.

  • All must meet current and future sustainability criteria and rely on new innovative ways (including biotechnology) for production.

  • All face fierce international competition, especially from China and India. Nearly 60 percent of all patents filed between early 2016 and June 2020 came from Chinese universities and companies (K. Hecht et al. Catalysts (2020), 10:1420).

  • The shift in Swiss biotechnology over the past 40 years, away from small molecules, has its consequences.

But this situation is also an opportunity for the remaining academic and industrial players. To catch up, however, we need to move away from the usual approaches. Here are a few thoughts on what and how we can do things differently:

  • Rethink the way we collaborate and try radical new ways of interacting (e.g. blockchain for open innovation and development).

  • Make much better use of the consequences of big data and artificial intelligence for chemical-enzymatic synthesis.

  • Identify the most promising fields of future disruptive developments of national importance for our industry.

  • Be aware of the convergent technical needs of the health, food and agrotech sectors and exploit them by joining forces.

  • Shift from a defensive to an offensive mode.

In 2004, a first step in this direction was taken with the establishment of the Swiss Industrial Biocatalysis Consortium (SIBC) and the goal of promoting biocatalysis as an efficient, economically and ecologically attractive technology for industrial applications (S. Hanlon, CHIMIA (2020) 74(5):342). In 2020, the Swiss Biotech Association (SBA) and the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (SATW) have begun working with SIBC to advance the development of Swiss biotechnology beyond the biopharmaceutical sector. Do you feel addressed? Then please contact us!

Hans-Peter Meyer Expertinova AG, SATW Member, Head Biotechnology Division