Demise of the Diva: The new organisms are workhorses not show ponies, but they do the most amazing tricks.

June 12, 2019 |

And so, the Fuel Ethanol Workshops have come and gone again with their dizzying array of technology updates from our friends in the world of enzymes and yeast. Reports from the floor indicate that the mood was surprisingly optimistic given the slew of small refinery waivers from EPA that have gut-punched the industry. In the end, bioneers are passionate positivists, and E15 has given the industry something to hang its native optimism upon. But they would like to see the China-US trade war settled, and soon, that’s for sure.

We would be remiss if we didn’t dive a little deeper in to Novozymes’ Fortiva and Innova Force, before attention shifts to the next hotspot on the bioeconomy calendar (which is the EU’s Climate Week sessions, later this month in and around Brussels).

What we would like to train our focus on is two-fold, the advances in systems biology — elsewhere, you’ve heard it described as synthetic biology, but it’s really all a part of systems biology, which is to say that we are focusing on the biology of an entire system and not just the optimization of a single component in that system, using the new biology toolkit.

In looking at developing an advancing a system, we are perhaps going to measure yield, that’s been the traditional yardstick in measuring value — yield, yield, yield is to industrial biotechnology as location, location, location is to real estate.

But there’s rate, too. If I can make it faster, I can get more product out of my existing biorefinery, regardless of whether yield has improved or not.

And there’s the process conditions as well — the lower the temperature range at which I can get my reactions, the less I have to heat up and cool my broth and stress my organism.

In the end, where the industry is moving is the Demise of the Diva, and by that we mean an organism that can do amazing things, make amazing products and with exotic rates, titers and yields as well, but who require an equally exotic support system of trainers, nutritionists, handlers, managers, flunkies, gofers, advisors, chefs, chauffeurs and so forth.

As Novozymes’ Brian Brazeau put it this week, “there are high performance organisms that will do the job, and of course the economics are always good, but the bigger question for ethanol producers is, ‘can I trust that my plant will run, that this innovation will tolerate the upsets, that are natural occurrences when you run at the scale we do, and that this will push through ad deliver for me, despite the pH, temperature variations and contaminations that are going to occur at this scale. Will I be able to run the plant my way, the yeast I want, the goals I set, will I be able to quickly switch between options when I see a change in market conditions. Can I have it the way we need it, and not have this organism get sick on me, or underperform?”

So, the trend in the market is threefold:

1. Still want those advances in yield and other performance metrics.

2. Also want a new Robustness and Flexibility.

3. Show me that you’re reducing my hidden costs, such as the nutrients I am feeding to yeast to keep them healthy.

The answers are coming from integrated platforms of enzymes and yeasts, and that’s why it’s not only interesting from a revenue and market share POV that Novozymes has entered into the yeast field, but a pointer to the direction that all of the majors are taking. Why are we seeing the majors, each of them, delivering pretty strong annual innovations on an annual basis? Because they are exploring not only what an organism can do, but what a system can do.

In Novozymes’s case, take for example the savings we’ve heard about with Innova Force — here what the Mighty Danes are highlighting:

  • $500,000 savings in nutrients (urea reduction, and 100% elimination of yeast nutrients)
  • $280,000 cost reduction related to poor performing fermentations caused by lack of robustness
  • <33% DS – plants using advanced yeasts struggle running high dry solids

Let’s take that first $500,000 as an example. As Brazeau explains it, “corn has all of the nutrients we need, why add extra? Let’s use what’s there, and what we have to do is design the yeast to use the nitrogen, for example, that is available in corn. I am a huge believer in the power of biology, and it comes down to design, so that you bring forward a strain that can produce, yet without that limiting factor that when you get to viable titers and rates, they get ill. I hope that’s a trend, hitting on real pain points for the industry with solutions based on even stronger and more robust strains, and using the new tools to look at synergies and interactions, so that you not only get the value of an innovation, but the strains play well together, and you get efficiencies on efficiencies.”

Is it a good time to bring innovation forward? Is this a good time to drive new methods when there is so much angst over refinery waivers and the volumes that the industry will be able to get into the marketplace, and the prices which they will be able to command?

Apparently so. Brazeau notes, “I think in our industry that we have a group the is very passionate about what they do, they know they are doing something important, that

biofuels are important, and when we get together, everyone is very open to new technologies that will help them. For us, we have to earn the credibility through service, and build that trust. Because advanced biology is still pretty new. Yes, brewing and baking  are ancient industries, but that was the artisan are and at artisan scale. Now, we are bringing forward a new engineering mindset, not only in the industrial scale of the plants, but right down to the organism and the system within which the organism lives. If we take forward that engineering mindset, we are going to ask more holistic questions, where it’s not just about individual amino acids but whole systems. Sequencing and other tools are giving us new abilities to move beyond yield and towards value.”

The Fortiva/ Force backstory

Fortiva is a new alpha-amylase technology that helps customers avoid having to choose between maximizing enzyme performance and operational efficiency. In yeast, Force continues to deliver on the promise to quickly bring innovative, robust, and reliable biological solutions to the market from the Innova yeast platform established last year.

The Bottom Line

Systems biology with a purpose. Engineering mindset. The Demise of the Diva. Moving beyond the Artisan Era. Moving from Yield to Value. The Power of Flexibility. These are the takeaways that might resonate long beyond FEW, long after we stop chatting about this refinery waiver or that trade deal. Innovation travels a long ways down the road with us — every single thing we do is the product of an innovative way of going about realizing a goal, even if it is as humbly engineered as a zipper, or a fork.

Advanced biology is so new, we think of it as an established field now that that we’ve had some of the concepts milling around for a generation, but if fermentation’s history was a 24 hour clock, advanced biology appeared at around five minutes to midnight. We’ll look back in 50 years and chuckle at the tools we are using today, compared to the sophistication of tomorrow.

What’s most inspiring perhaps is the customer focus of this — the adding of flexibility, diversification and choice. It is the point of biofuels — diversification of energy, that is — and to see it in the technologies that are bringing forth biofuels, well it’s right and proper, even if the toil is unremitting.

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