A future built by biology
The promise that biology holds the answers to the world’s biggest problems feels almost too tantalising. Could a solution be this elegant? This claim increasingly seems more legitimate despite our tendency to overhype nature’s benevolence.
Earlier this year, our founder, Veronica Stevenson, travelled to New York to speak at the 2022 Biofabricate Conference to dive deep into this claim with other biofabrication innovators and learn about the opportunities to redesign entire supply chains as we make way for the impending biorevolution.
This post is four things -
- Fanfare for the intellectual intimacy created by Suzanne Lee and Amy Congdon at Biofabricate,
- A showcase and celebration of the wonderous inventions you didn’t think were possible.
- Predictions for the future and opportunities in this field.
- Sharing Veronica’s talk — the calling to be kaitiaki.
Thanks to evolution, nature is — undoubtedly — the ultimate designer. Our relationship with nature is changing. After thousands of years of closely studying nature (alongside more unsavoury extraction and destruction practices), we are now learning to mimic it. The biorevolution promises a move away from intensive extractive farming, away from fossil fuels and to manufacture a suite of new raw materials that are designed, not mined.
The sentiment that we can learn from nature to create products, economic systems, and manufacturing processes is catching. It is the vision of Biofabricate. A material world built with biology.
A curated space
The Biofabricate Summit 2022 was a carefully curated conference, preferring to keep itself small despite its ability to attract large crowds. They focused on a select group of promising biotech and design players, ensuring the conference delivered the most value for them.
Veronica- “Biofabricate felt like a community. When you are working in entrepreneurship, it can be isolating. That isolation is amplified when you’re working in a very niche field. It was so nice to be seen and go deep quickly with the people there. It is quite unusual for events to be run this way.”
The future is now.
Some of the technologies on display seemed to be pulled from science fiction. Thanks to well-timed technological breakthroughs, lowering of the cost of goods and rising demand for sustainable alternatives, we are seeing the rise of products built with biology.
Factories in cells, moving atoms to improve performance and expecting our products to be better for the planet will be the new normal.
Veronica — “It was important to leave the New Zealand bubble to find out what’s possible. A conference of such high quality and the calibre of the people there help you realise that what you thought was only possible in the future is possible now. It made me feel like it was all closer than I had previously thought. That was very inspiring, motivating and hopeful.”
Redhouse Studios stood out from the pack by ‘growing’ buildings. Among its many projects, they are creating food and sustainable building materials using the waste biomass from Namibia’s “encroacher bush”, which will, in turn, clear land for wildlife and preserve water supplies. If that isn’t ambitious enough, Redhouse has a more experimental arm funded by NASA to use a version of this technology to grow buildings on Mars using carbon dioxide from mars’ atmosphere to grow a solid structure with types of fungi that can withstand ionising radiation. Significantly lowering the weight and, thereby, pound per dollar of transporting these materials to the red planet.
Some technologies have to take a step back to it’s nature-roots to go many steps forward. For example, plant-based dyes set to replace toxic synthetic indigo used to dye jeans. Huue Bio looks to phase out synthetic dyes with toxic levels of formaldehyde which cause bodily and environmental harm. They are circling back to a plant-based version of indigo but this time using synthetic biology, making it both non-toxic and synthesised without all the land and energy needed to grow the plants.
Veronica- “To see the prototypes was inspiring. It wasn’t an ethereal promise anymore. You could see and touch the spools of yarn, the panels, the sheets of fabric!”
Fill that gap!
On the more disheartening side, it’s not hard to see gaps in this space. Despite the enthusiasm to solve problems, many innovations focus on the end product. But there are entire supply chains to consider. Supply chains are hard to control and expensive. These systems rely on materials produced by fossil fuels and are not ready for anything other than drop-in technologies. Even companies like Parley that use recycled plastics, the materials for which these systems were designed, face a large amount of pushback due to their recycled nature.
Currently, we’re trying to shoe-horn entirely new materials into an unsustainable system. This undermines the intention behind creating that material in the first place.
Veronica- “While it was all incredibly encouraging, there is a long way to go. What we are trying to do is create entirely new materials. How will we get into this supply chain with $5 trillion of ageing incumbent infrastructure set up for the plastic machine? While frustrating, it highlighted an opportunity to build a brand new supply chain.”
There is an opportunity for strategic players to invest in experimental and modular machinery ready for a new wave of biomaterials.
A call to kaitiaki.
At the summit, Veronica took to the stage to discuss her vocation to entrepreneurship through kaitiaki — a Māori concept of guardianship for the sky, the sea, and the land. This message was received well by a crowd hungry for a better future.
Entrepreneurship, at its best, is a tool for solving problems and pushing the limits of human ability. At it’s worst a tool for concentrating wealth for a select group and extorting the poor.
This call to guardianship is the difference between channelling the entrepreneurial vocation to innovate for people, not just for profit.
The innovation on display at Biofabricate reminds us that we can do mind-boggling things and that there is still time to create systems and processes that are sustainable from conception.