In the past month, the Digest pointed towards a tipping point in the underlying technology that powers the industry — and a convergence in the technologies of genetics, Big Data and robotics that is rapidly and radically re-shaping the bioeconomy and the to an increasing extent the general economy. We noted that the tip of the spear in terms of the impact of these changes will be felt in a radical shift in the nature of work and employment — and we pointed towards collaborative efforts which will become vastly more prevalent and subject to epic shifts in the ways they are formed and conducted.
These changes will be far more immediate and impactful than, for example, climate shift — though less depressingly negative.
The evidence is mounting up, and another set of it arrives via the reports from the preindustrial demonstration consortium in France known as Toulouse White Biotechnology.
At TWB, they’ve been rightly touting their growth and success — in today’s column, we’d like to highlight some of that success but point towards the changes in industrial development that are powering the consortiums — what that says about work, capital, and access to high technology, and how it points towards the future. In particular, we’re seeing a convergence between R&D consortia for larger companies and later-stage projects — and technology accelerators and incubators.
The TWB backstory
For background, Toulouse White Biotechnology aims to speed up the development of industrial biotechnologies by facilitating exchanges between public research and industry. The roots go back to March 2011 when TWB was given a signature award from France’s Investments for the Future Program. It’s managed by France’s renowned agricultural public research institute INRA, the Institut national de la recherche agronomique. Since then, it has supported a total of 79 projects including 33 finalized at the end of 2016.
It’s relevance has been on the upswing. Last year, the consortium reported revenues of €9.5 M, representing a 10% increase from 2015 — and 8 new industrial partners signed with the consortium. In all, there were 46 active R&D projects in 2016 and 15 of them were new in 2016.
The project mix
The project mix is worth looking at, as a pointer to how consortia will see a revenue mix in the future.
– 46% are competitive industrial projects: these research projects, financed at 100% by industrial partners, address a specific issue and cover subjects such as the optimization of microorganisms or fermentation processes, the technical validation of an industrial process, etc.
– 26% are projects co-financed by industrial partners and public funds in response to national or European calls for tender, such as for example the Synthacs project (financed by the French National Research Agency and the ADISSEO company) which opened a new metabolic pathway in order to produce molecules for animal feed;
– 28% are pre-competitive research projects: each year, TWB self-finances with approximately €1 M fundamental research projects with strong potential, aimed at generating innovative results exploitable by industrial partners.
Consortia powering a tool shift worth noting
In our overall view on the future of the industry, we pointed to the increasing role of robotics — and one of the reasons that consortia are becoming more important is that tools like these are becoming expensive yet essential — and through the consortia, the shift towards capex is shared.
We also pointed towards a shift in the industrial bioeconomy towards services — companies that developed demonstration-scale bioconversion units, fermenters, labs, industrial techniques and tools are sharing them as a means of generating revenue — think Amyris and REG in this respect, even ZeaChem. And a new generation of companies has arrived focused entirely on advanced services and tools — think Zymergen, Gingko BioWorks and Arzeda among others.
The consortia are a part of this epic shift. This past year, TWB’s investment capacity of €850 000 enabled it to maintain a high level of robotic equipment. Hence, for example, on the “High-throughput strain engineering” platform, the molecular biology robot (the installation of which began in autumn 2015) was completed in 2016 by adding new features. And the consortium is offering a blend of original and effective technical solutions, and the provision of services on those platforms.
The public-private model
In practical terms, industrial partners who enter the TWB consortium pay an entry fee which is directly reinvested in high-risk research projects. This model thus makes it possible to finance research programs to explore innovative scientific fields. In 2016, the new industrial partners were AB7 Industries, BGene, BIOASTER, Heurisko, Naturamole, Servier, Micropep Technologies, and Syngulon.
The overall mix of 53 industrial partners is worth noting:
21% large companies
30% very small companies
13% investment funds
17% public partners
In 2016, two start-ups, Enobraq and Pili, moved into TWB’s premises, and the start-up MicroPEP Technologies is just now joining. The consortium provides assistance and a significant acceleration to start-up development, particularly in the initial phase.
Proliferation of sectors
The industry has moved far beyond its roots in pharma, agriculture and agro-energy, and now embraces:
Agro-industry / advanced nutrition
Flavors & fragrances
Beauty and cosmetology
Two in particular stand out:
The Amoeba company, which joined TWB in 2014, raised €15 M in 2016 and inaugurated its production site near Lyon;
The formation of Carbiolice as a JV between the start-up Carbios and the Limagrain group as a direct outcome from the Thanaplast project in partnership with TWB.