Striding out to help bio-based businesses grow - comment

I run marathons, and understand the hard work and resilience I need to achieve my goal.

We can’t let a pandemic get in the way of progress for the planet, says Renault. Picture: contributed.

This is nothing compared to the long and arduous journey from testing a process in a laboratory to bringing it to market. Not all the ideas make the finish line. Add into the mix the intense disruption of the Covid-19 global pandemic and it’s an even more difficult course.

But I am optimistic, and know from experience that laboratory operations have a long and stellar record for excellence and resilience and in my role at Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), I can continue to offer help and support.

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Anyone who has studied or worked in a laboratory is already aware of high standards of hygiene, the need to wash hands to prevent cross-contamination, wear gloves and goggles, and continually adhere to strict safety standards.

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The set-up and the scale-up processes my team supports involve and require the highest standards to provide a safe space to execute feasibility experiments. Our challenge has been to provide this service from outside the lab. Just like a theatre director without a space to perform, I have had to adapt and provide a new service to our member companies to prepare for when we can start testing again.

The scale-up facilities offer IBioIC member companies, and academic and industry partners, a safe space to test their processes to help them to bring exciting new biotechnology to the market. These centres offer our clients – either one person with a bright spin-out idea, or small business start-ups with initial funding to larger industrial clients – a personal and bespoke service.

We have spent time working out what services we could offer to clients without a laboratory, and then how to plan for the health and safety of clients and employees when our laboratories would be operational again this month. Our deliverable to our member community was to document and share our expertise.

Confident response

The team produced “Best Practice Guidelines for Safe Laboratory Working” to ensure their own work environments were as safe as our own. The advice would not have been possible without our member companies. I decided early on that although crises at any level are disruptive, if you respond confidently, they offer an opportunity to earn the trust and credibility of your staff, customers, academic partners, funders and your key stakeholders.

We continued our recruitment drive and employed Shiwen Zhuang, a leading fermentation scientist, to support our industry clients. Even though the team is not in the same room, we are planning and involving him in team-building activities.

We have also maintained our industry events and networking opportunities. IBioIC runs the Scottish Fermentation Network and the last virtual webinar saw 70-plus virtual attendees listen to talks about oceans and the bio economy. Speakers included member company Oceanium talking about its work creating bio-packaging from sustainably farmed seaweed.

The meeting concluded with our guided beer tasting by Rachel Sutherland, assistant professor and sensory expert from Heriot-Watt University using beer supplied by 71brewing. The crisis is not a time to sit still as every organisation is still moving, be it in a more remote and digital form. Planning for the reset and the continuing business networking is important.

At IBioIC we work with innovators every day. They look at residue from, say, whisky or old coffee grounds, and see the opportunity for a new product that protects the planet rather than using valuable resources. Our scale-up support centres allow them to test their ideas and the continued advice and support from IBioIC is vital.

We are here to support and push companies to commercialisation, we can’t let a pandemic get in the way of progress for the planet. Keep moving, creating and being agile is the best way and finish with a sense of achievement that all the training and hard work has paid off.

Neil Renault, biofacilities and operations manager, IBioIC.

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