Precision fermentation startups have few options when looking for ways to scale up their technology. The newly launched scaling service provider Boston Bioworks aims to address this bottleneck.
In the food protein industry, sustainability, climate change and animal welfare are a growing concern for many consumers, leading to soaring interest in alternative protein. This wide term encompasses a range of technology aiming to provide sustainable alternatives to meat production, such as plant-based meat, fermentation and cultured meat.
To meet the growing demand, big investments are going to synthetic biology players using strains of microbes to produce food ingredients in a process called precision fermentation. One major example of this is Ginkgo Bioworks, which was valued at $15 billion when it went public in 2021.
“When you take animals out of the supply chain picture, one of the best ways to produce these ingredients to replace existing animal-based ingredients is fermentation,” said Michael Tai, co-founder and CEO of the U.S. startup Boston Bioworks.
However, there is less attention and investment devoted to helping synthetic biology startups scale up their production. This means there are few options to help them advance their process from the lab scale to the point where they can enter commercial production with a contract manufacturing organization (CMO). This was a problem frequently encountered by Tai when he worked as head of bioprocess at the plant-based company Motif FoodWorks, and what led him to launch Boston Bioworks this year.
“I had seen some of the problems that our own portfolio companies were having scaling up: having trouble finding the right talent, expertise and equipment,” said Boston Bioworks’ head of finance, Ted Netland, who also serves as an advisor at the alternative protein-focused venture capital (VC) firm Lever VC. “That was what led us to realize that there was an opportunity out there.”
To overcome the bottleneck in scaling up, Boston Bioworks offers process development services to clients that are developing food products such as meat and dairy proteins, fats, and flavorings. This helps startups to streamline their path to the commercial scale without needing to spend extra cash and time on upgrading their equipment.
Biotech companies developing precision fermentation technology must first source a microbial strain that can produce their target food ingredient. At early stages, the technology is usually capable of running fermentation in a volume equivalent to a coffee mug.
Tai explained that a lot of early-stage precision fermentation companies “have a process they can play with, but the price parity is definitely not there. They need to spend a thousand or more dollars per kilogram to make that product while the sales price is a hundred dollars per kilogram.”
To make the product economically competitive with conventional food sources, the startup needs to figure out how to run the precision fermentation at pilot and then commercial volumes. This often involves recruiting a CMO. However, the technology transfer process with a CMO is often a difficult task fraught with errors. Boston Bioworks aims to make the procedure as seamless as possible.
“You don’t really have to use us to connect you to a CMO, but we offer that service to streamline it for our clients,” said Tai. “It could even be like a remote lab: you contract with companies who develop the strains, then you move on to us and then move on to a CMO.”
At the moment, Boston Bioworks is operating at partner sites such as universities and using their existing equipment to keep its setup costs low. In the meantime, the company is building up its own technological expertise and data platform to speed up the onboarding process with different clients.
“We don’t have to purchase that equipment ourselves,” Netland said. “It allows us to start operating without putting out some of those initial cash outlets. We don’t have to pay brokerage fees, for example, and we don’t have to pay upfront rent.”
Once the business builds a strong client history at its partner facilities, Boston Bioworks aims to construct its own facilities to increase its profitability. Nonetheless, the company’s plan to build momentum slowly with up to two clients is already being challenged by greater-than-expected demand for its services.
“Due to the market demand, we just signed our fifth client,” said Mert Sahin, chief commercial officer at Boston Bioworks. “We’re continuing to get inbound interest without doing any outbound marketing. It’s an incredible thing that we’re going through right now.”
In the long term, Boston Bioworks plans to produce its own proprietary ingredients, and could even branch out into other verticals, such as fragrances and flavors, cosmetics and renewable chemicals.
There are several other options to help startups to scale up their fermentation technology. One example is academic facilities with pilot facilities. Another is Culture Biosciences, which raised $80 million in a Series B round in 2021 to finance the development of its bioprocess development business. And some contract research and development organizations (CDMOs) and CMOs are beginning to offer help with scaling up fermentation processes.
According to Tai, the offerings from big CMOs in this space are limited and often inflexible. “They often enforce process development with their existing unit operations because they don’t want to develop a process that doesn’t involve their existing unit operations,” he noted.
According to proponents of fermentation technology, the approach offers a more sustainable way to produce food protein than conventional animal farming. It also emits less carbon dioxide and requires less land. If startups are able to accelerate their path to commercialization by means of companies like Boston Bioworks, precision fermentation could one day enter the mainstream in the food protein market.
“Our success and the fermentation space’s success is all tied together,” said Netland. “So we want to see that happen.”