ENCOURAGING A WORLD-LEADING BIOECONOMY

Mark Turner, Deputy Director of Agri-tech, Bioeconomy and Chemicals (ACE) team, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), UK

It was great to see the Industry Strategy Challenge Fund being announced at the Autumn statement and particularly encouraging to see IB being specifically exampled as the kind of innovation that Government is keen to support. The UK is rich in quality academic and industry resources to make IB a key sector for our economy. This new investment opportunity is a chance for us to add further support to developing and growing a range of IB technologies and applications and we will be working with industry and with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to help bring forward business cases to capitalise on this call.

IB should be high on the agenda. Its main focus is to engineer new pathways to sustainable chemical ingredients and to provide new value chains across sector opportunities, including turning waste and low value streams from one process into the feedstock for another. The UK is not massively endowed with vast amounts of ligno-cellulosic biomass, but we could do more to valorise our own wastes and residues and so minimise imports where possible. We could do more to realise the huge opportunities to be had from the innovative processing of bio-waste: from municipal solid waste to industrial waste gases we could be making everything from biofuel, fish protein, sugars for pharmaceuticals and high value chemicals here in the UK over the next few years. The bioeconomy opportunity realised through IB in the UK is about making the most of some of our domestic feedstocks to create high-value chemicals and fuels will be an important factor in the sustainability and resilience of the UK post-Brexit. Part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy role is to help facilitate more cross-sector growth discussions and partnerships so that we can spot the synergies and symbiotic opportunities.

Key to enabling IB is the essential building block of synthetic biology: the design, engineering and construction of new biological systems which will transform sectors as diverse as materials and healthcare. The cluster of expertise around Scotland is particularly well placed to accelerate this industry, in fact the highest density of synthetic biology practitioners in the UK outside of London are based in Scotland. Scottish organisations are active in major UK initiatives such as SynbiCITE – the UK’s collaborative Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) dedicated to promoting the adoption and use of synthetic biology by industry; and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) – the UK’s innovation network which has its biosciences and biotechnology team located in Edinburgh. Scotland is rich in academic talent in synthetic biology, with the pool spanning across the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, St Andrews and Heriot Watt. Synthetic biology tools being developed by these institutions cross a wide range of organisms such as bacteria, yeast, fungi, plants and animals which could be translated into supporting human health, crop and livestock development. Organisations which provide a focal point that connects this academic expertise with industrial capabilities, such as the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) does, are therefore critical in not only driving innovation but finding commercial opportunities for new technology. Its recent £3 million investment in synthetic biology projects highlights its commitment to the diverse and growing number of companies providing synthetic biology services to a growing list of international clients already.

I’m encouraged by business interest in commercialising bioeconomy-related innovation in the UK - we have some great pedigree companies showcasing fantastic pioneering innovations. These are achieving commercial success now, building on what is often a story of ten years of lab and scale-up work. We’re now on the cusp of realising these technologies into investment opportunities for the UK. But can we capitalise on our home grown innovations and successful small businesses to grow to scale through embedding manufacturing here in the UK – I hope we will see our academic base, R&D capability, innovation infrastructure and readily available supply chains anchoring business here in the UK as they grow and prosper. Government’s new Industrial Strategy will have a focus on innovation, high growth opportunities, disruptive businesses and local growth. To me IB is the personification of those elements and so should be a good fit with this new thinking. Progress is already being made towards developing these themes in the IB space: the formation of the bioeconomy alliance, BioPilotsUK in October is particularly encouraging - five established R&D centres across the UK will work together to ensure that Britain has a coordinated and integrated set of  bio refining technologies and facilities to effectively support and grow the sector. Together they will de-risk the commercialisation of bio-based products and processes, critical for IB business scale-up.

The focus of my team has been pressing on with our work to develop a UK bioeconomy strategy working with “the Five Chairs” across the agri-tech, chemicals, synthetic biology, medicines manufacturing and industrial biotechnology councils. We are shaping and building a coherent approach so that the UK can capitalise on the tremendous growth opportunities to be had. This work will link together the separate sector strategies and road mapping work from each council to enhance, accelerate and realise new value chains across sector boundaries. Key to making a success of this work will be our engagement and involvement of other parts of Whitehall so that we can harmonise our policies across waste management, bio-energy, bio-fuels, and our responsibilities for delivering carbon savings.

Our aim is to produce a strategy which will encourage not only a world-leading bioeconomy, but one which is appropriate to the UK’s industrial structure and availability of natural resources. This strategy will involve many different sectors across the economy and will take account of other objectives, such as decarbonisation, sustainability and food security. The call for evidence asks a series of questions which will help us identify the opportunities, challenges, barriers and enablers. We want your views on where there is room for growth and what needs to be done to achieve the promise of the bioeconomy.