How can biotechnology and bioeconomy contribute to establish a sustainable and circular economy? Nearly 500 attendees discussed latest trends at EFIB 2019 in Brussels. 

More than 260 companies with 480 delegates from 30 countries joined for this year’s “European Forum for industrial Biotechnology and Bioeconomy” (EFIB), which was the 12th edition of the business conference organised by EuropaBio and BIOCOM AG from 30 Sept to 2 Oct in Brussels, Belgium. Having a packed programme with 80+ speakers in 13 sessions many different insights into latest R&D and regulatory trends in the areas of food, plastics, synthetic biology, bioprocesses, global bioeconomy policies, novel feedstocks, materials and fashion have been presented throughout the conference. The cevent also offered a lively exhibition with 27 presenting companies, organisations, networks and research institutes. A start-up village with 30 innovators and 20 academic posters attracted much interest as well. One of the highlight of this year’s event was the new “The Taste of the Future”-evening reception on 1st October that offered tastings of novel food products such as Algae Gin, insect-based snacks and meat alternatives as well as a guided tour through the innovation areas and start-up pitches to get in touch with the innovators in the food, materials, fashion and bioprocess areas.

Economic potential of bioeconomy

That industrial biotechnology and bioeconomy innovation holds a big potential for economic growth for many industry sectors was pointed out by many speakers. “You should evaluate your fastest entry point into sustainable, bio-based product development. Start small, then scale up,” said opening plenary speaker Maria Mendiluce, Managing Director for Climate & Energy, Cities & Mobility and Circular Economy with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). To help companies setting up an appropriate strategy in this field, the WBCSD will publish a “CEO guide to bioeconomy” in mid-October. Industry urged policy makers to not lose track in Europe due to high regulatory hurdles. “US innovates, China imitates and Europe hesitates,” commented Marcus Remmers, CTO of DSM, on the current innovation conditions during his speech on 1st October. In view of the huge potential of novel technologies such as synthetic biology and others he warned that a dynamic and innovation-driven ecosystem would need a more reasonable risk assessment strategy from the policy side if Europe will be part of the market growth. 

Europe with high ambitions

That Europe has indeed high ambitions to be a leader in the field of bioeconomy was highlighted by Carlo Pettinelli, Director of Consumer, Environmental and Health Technologies at DG Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs from the European Commission on 2nd October. As part the EC’s new Green Deal he announced a new political circular economy strategy in which bio-based innovations are one of the pillars. “We want Europe to be a frontrunner and we want Europe the exporter of knowledge and best practices,” Pettinelli pointed out. “Biotechnology has a lot to contribute,” emphasised Joanna Dupont-Inglis, General Secretary of EuropaBio in this context. 

Pettinelli also referred to the many promising results within the current projects funded under the Bio-based Industry Joint Undertaking (BBI) initiative. During EFIB several BBI-funded consortia such as BIOSMART, EMBRACED, FRESH and EFFECTIVE presented their product samples and results to the audience. Fabrizio Calenti, Executive Director of  Spanish textile manufacturer Aquafil who is part of the EFFECTIVE consortium talked about the opportunities of bio-based innovation for the fashion industry, but also underlined the fact that the right story has to be told to the consumers. “With our Econyl yarn which is made from recycled plastic we are demonstrating that people and brands are even proud to use plastic,” he said. In view of this, more sustainable textiles coming out of bio-based innovation will probably attract much interest in the market if the technology itself is not put in the center of the communication. “If we produce a bio-based product, we will also have to make sure that it has the same properties of the fossil-based ones and that no change in the value chain is needed,” Calenti said by referring to Aquafils partnership with US-biotech company Genomatica and others within EFFECTIVE.

Need for change in the textile industry

The need for change in the textile industry was also underlined by Hector Alonso Fernandez, Sustainability Manager of Spanish fashion company Inditex. He told the EFIB audience about the companies strategy to reach more sustainable production and manufacturing processes over the next years. “Bio-based solutions will definitely play an important role in achieving our goals,” he said. This will particularly be the case with regards to raw materials, the wet processing units and the use and end-use area. In addition to this, also new financing tools for innovation in the textile industry, such as the Good Fashion Fund,  were presented during EFIB.

Importance of strategic partnerships

These and other representatives from large companies highlighted the fact that this transformation and innovation can only be done with strategic cooperation partners. During one of the plenary sessions on Day 2 Michaël Cogne from tyre company Michelin described the need for these kind of partnerships: “If we want to achieve our goal if having 80% of our raw material sustainable in the future, than we cannot go this way alone. We don’t have the know-how to do that, that’s why we started cooperating.” During the conference Michelin for the first time presented officially its new €28m-initiative Bioimpulse. The consortium involves the Toulouse White Biotechnology Centre and several other public and private players from France, aiming to create a new bio-based adhesive resin without any of the so-called Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC). 

Dynamic food innovation landscape

Another hot topic during this year’s EFIB was food innovation, thereby highlighting several different trends within this dynamic sector. Be it algae- or insect-based product development or clean meat – many experts from start-ups, food tech incubators, banks and investors discussed current challenges and trends. Joseph Zhou from food tech investor bitsxbites provided insights into the Chinese perspective on the topic: “We think that bioscience solutions will play a key role in transforming the sector and in providing solutions to the current challenges. We will actively invest in promising technologies that offer new opportunities for the Chinese market.” Furthermore, he underlined that he sees a huge potential of know-how in Europe and told the audience about the first investments of bitsxbites in UK and Israel. 

Insect farming companies call for regulatory change

During EFIB novel trends in the feed sector have been discussed as well. Ÿnsect, the French insect farming startup, has won the John Sime Award which is handed over during EFIB to an innovator selected by the audience. The company impressed with its growth plans and $125 million in Series C funding which was raised earlier this year in the largest early-stage agtech funding deal in Europe. Ÿnsect farms mealworms to produce ingredients for fish feed, pet food, and crop fertilizers in an effort to capture some of the $500 billion animal feed market. The startup is one of 50 insect farming groups represented in the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF), an EU-based association for the industry. In 2018, members of the association produced 6,000 tonnes of insects in 20 countries. At EFIB Guillaume Daoulas, Head of Strategic Marketing with Ÿnsect, together with Heinrich Katz from German Hermetia Baruth GmbH underlined the need for a more adapted regulatory environment so that insects can also be given as a feed ingredient to poultry, for instance. Another issue raised in the discussion was the current prohibition in Europe of using organic waste as a feedstock for insects. “If this would be legalized we would have a real circular economy and could profit most from the abilities of insects to make use of this waste,” said Katz.

One of the major news presented in the food track, came from UK-based company 3FBio.  presented the brand-new BBi-funded consortium PLENTITUDE that officially kicked-off on 3rd October with a meeting in Brussels. This consortium is the first BBI flagship project led by an SME and involves nine other partners to build a first-of-its-kind, large-scale, integrated biorefinery facility to produce proteins for food from low-cost sustainable feedstocks in a zero-waste-process. The flagship project is developed with lead industrial partner Alcogroup SA and will be based in the city of Ghent, in Belgium. The plant is co-funded by 3F BIO and the European Commission under BBI JU, who are investing €17m.

How to evaluate sustainability for investors

Further topics discussed during EFIB included advances in the area of synthetic biology, artificial intelligences and bioprocesses. How novel feedstocks such as CO2 could be used for a future circular bioeconomy was highlighted aby different speakers as well. In the financing plenary session on Day 2, experts shed light on how the European Commission aims to set up an EU taxonomy on sustainability in industry by developing indicators which reflect contributions to a sustainable development in each of the different sectors. “These indicators will provide a set of tools for investors to classify investments as sustainable. It will not be mandatory to use them, but hopefully provide a valuable support for stakeholders in the financial area,” Sara Lovisolo, Group Sustainability Manager at Borsa Italiana and Member of the Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance explained in Brussels.

Friedrich Barth, Managing Director at the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre in Bonn, introduced into new initiatives of pushing forward sustainable chemistry. The ISC3 will also be part of the new EU circular bioeconomy fund, initiated by the European Investment Bank last year. According to Barth, the fund is currently set up together with partners and a first closing is expected to be in the first quarter of 2020. 

In the closing plenary session, among others, the role of consumers was highlighted by Christine Lang, biotech founder and German representative in the International Advisory Council on Global Bioeconomy. She presented results of a representative survey among 1,000 people in Germany, showing that sustainable lifestyles are interpreted differently. There are the ones wishing to go back to nature and urging for less consumption, while others set hope in technological innovation to solve the problems or believe in a green economic growth. “When telling the people our stories about bioeconomy, we have to take into account that we don’t have THE one consumer,” Lang emphasized. She also urged for looking into societal innovation and for telling clear, not confusing stories. “People demand for long-lasting, repairable and renewable products and with the help of bioeconomy we are able to provide them.”

Outlook to EFIB 2020 in Germany

During the closing reception of EFIB, Christine Lang introduced into current bioeconomy initiatives in Germany as next year’s EFIB will take place in Frankfurt. The German government is preparing a new bioeconomy policy strategy which is expected to be launched in October this year. Furthermore, in 2020 the German Federal Research Ministry will also focus on bioeconomy in its official “Science Year” programme with many events taking place for the general public. Janin Sameith, Director Life Sciences and Bioeconomy with Hessen Trade and Invest, and Viola Bronsema, BIO Deutschland, briefly talked about industrial biotechnology competences in Germany and why it will be attractive to be part of EFIB 2020.