You might not have heard of industrial biotechnology (IB) but the chances are it has benefitted your life. Whether it is turning food waste into green energy or improving the way we manufacture food, drink, vaccines and antibiotics, IB offers advantages for us all.
As the global population grows, it consumes more food, energy, materials and medicine each year, and to meet these needs we rely heavily on our chemical industry. At the beginning of the 20th century, the sector was tiny, and by the millennium it had grown to become one of the largest in the world. But there’s one big problem: its raw ingredients are based mainly on fossil fuels, and we simply can’t keep using oil and other finite resources.
This is where IB comes in – it has the potential to address some of the world’s biggest challenges by offering green alternatives to our scarce natural resources.
It uses plant-based sources to produce or process materials, chemicals or energy. For example, plants can be processed to produce biofuels or plastics as an alternative to crude oil, and chemicals could be extracted from marine plants to replace synthetics. IB is also used by the health industry to develop new drugs, vaccines and antibiotics such as regenerative medicine, gene therapy and medicines based on biological molecules. My view is that the 21st century will be known as the era we harness the full potential of biology.
The role of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) is to stimulate the growth and success of IB technology in Scotland to £900 million by 2025. We want to enable collaboration between industry and academia to bring new IB processes and products to the global market.
Since our inception in 2014, we’ve funded 68 innovative projects with an accumulated value of more than £14m, creating 170 jobs. We have over 120 industry members 18 universities and research institutes as partners. Crucially, in August we received £11m of core funding for Phase 2 of our activities, which will take us up to 2023.
One of our greatest success stories is our annual conference, which takes place this week, with sustainability as the theme. Now in its fifth year, it is the UK’s largest IB conference, attracting over 450 delegates, around half of whom are from outside Scotland. The aim is to keep the IB industry up to speed on developments across the globe, bring people together and inspire new ideas and collaborations.
The event attracts delegates from industry and academia in a roughly equal split – most conferences tend to be heavily weighted to either one or the other. This unusual but welcome balance allows valuable networking opportunities with “the other side”. It attracts more attendees every year and now even has its own fringe events such as a student-led symposium and “Dragon’s Den”-style investor presentations.
The conference will see the launch of the Scottish Government’s update to the Scottish Industrial Biotechnology National Plan for the next five years. It’s also the first time that the UK bioeconomy strategy will be discussed with the industry.
It’s vitally important the industry has a chance to come together. IB is a disruptive technology – there are many challenges in bringing new products and processes to market – so getting representatives from the government, academia and industry in one room is part of the reason the conference is so popular.
IB may still be in its infancy in Scotland, but the foundations for a strong, vibrant industry are there. We have a highly skilled workforce and well-established IB companies of all sizes pursuing aggressive growth. We also have a unique wealth of relevant natural resources such as algae, agricultural waste and forestry.
I’m looking forward to getting together with some of the sector’s most exciting companies and experts this week, to discuss how we continue to accelerate the growth of IB and work towards a more sustainable future for all.
- Roger Kilburn, CEO, Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre