In 2013, the BBSRC, with support from EPSRC, committed £18 million to fund 13 unique collaborative Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB). These BBSRC NIBB foster collaborations between academia, industry, policy makers and NGOs in order to find new approaches to tackle research challenges translate research and deliver key benefits in IB. Each network has a particular focus area, mainly within the UK, but with interest to build international links.

To this end, in 2014, I took up the role of Network Manager for the ‘Crossing Biological Membranes’ (CBMNet) BBSRC NIBB, which aims to understand the mechanisms by which substances are transported into, within, and out of cell factories, leading to the development of enabling technologies that are crucial for the future of almost all cell-based Industrial Biotechnology (IB) applications.

Before joining CBMNet, I had had a varied career, including two knowledge transfer roles at the University of Sheffield, working in scientific sales and marketing and heading up a renewable energy laboratory. When I took up my role with CBMNet I admit, I was no expert in Industrial Biotechnology (and I’m still not) and had never really considered just how important it is to contribute to future sustainable economic development in the UK.

The original BBSRC plan was that the NIBB would provide pump priming funding for the IB catalyst. However, in 2016 the IB catalyst was discontinued, following a review of individual Delivery Plans and budget allocations. Understandably, the IB community was upset about this decision, but at this time, there was no up-to-date evidence to present to government to argue for why IB is so important for the UK economy.

The breadth of potential products and markets to which industrial biotechnology can be applied is one of its greatest strengths, but also arguably one of the key reasons why Industrial Biotechnology is not adequately referenced in current UK government policy and investment.

Therefore in late 2016 CBMNet had the idea to develop a joint NIBB funding call to commission a report to look at the IB landscape in the UK, with the target audience for the report are UK funders and The Government. Three other NIBB were keen to be involved, namely, BIOCATNET, P2P and C1Net. We organised a stakeholder event in Sheffield in August 2016 to gather opinions from key IB players for the scope of the call and the project aim was defined to map the strengths of the UK Industrial Biotechnology sector, focusing on research and development through to commercialisation with additional focus on Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 4-7.

In March 2017 RSM (economic consultants) were commissioned to produce the report ‘Developing a Strategy for Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy in the UK’. The findings and recommendations of which are based on: an extensive desk based review of relevant strategy and policy documentation; in-depth interviews with 50 strategic industrial biotechnology stakeholders; analysis of secondary datasets including company and investment data; an online survey yielding 160 responses; in-depth case study research; and group consultation with leading academics.

My personal view is that this report makes strong evidence-based recommendations as sound foundations on which we can formulate future policy and set the direction for UK IB.  We will need powerful advocates for IB to effectively make what is a very strong case for placing IB as a key pillar in planning the economic future of the UK.  By providing a consistent, supportive policy and regulatory framework, government can encourage investors to back innovative start ups and SMEs and mitigate some of the risk of investing in financing longer-term synthetic biology based IB which has the potential to transform current processes and expand IB to boundaries that are only limited by our imagination.

I believe that IB is a force for good that should have a major influence on future UK economic policy to improve the quality of life in the UK and beyond.  IB can be the highway to a sustainable chemicals industry based on world-class scientific discoveries, but this will not happen spontaneously.  We need supportive long-term government policies, investments to nurture academic-industrial partnerships, enhanced access to pilot facilities for SMEs, simplified but rigorous regulatory frameworks, and an IB sector deal in the new Industrial Strategy initiative to make the UK a world-leader. 

I look forward to discussing the report findings at the IBioIC Annual Conference in January 2018 and hope that this event inspires attendees to be advocates for UK IB and use the evidence-based recommendations in the report as a call to action when you engage with policymakers at all levels of government.


Jen Vanderhoven, CMBNet