Hacking 4 Bio-manufacturing

One Team’s Journey into the World of Biotech, National Defense, and Government Innovation.

Xavier Salvador
Jan 5 · 7 min read

Imagine growing a runway. What if the Air Force needed to quickly and discretely set-up a forward operating base in a remote desert. Driving in cement and steel is too slow. Instead, a C-5 cargo plane could drop highly-engineered yeast molecules to produce an airstrip and land an F-22 squadron. The military is not far away from making this a reality.

My Hacking for Defense project team launched into this world of defense innovations. Our goal was to understand how the Department of Defense (DoD) can, not only build this runway but facilitate a thriving, domestic bio-manufacturing industry.

Early Stages

To start earlier, bio-manufacturing would not have made the list of subjects I planned to study during my public policy master’s degree. At the time, biomanufacturing to me only meant brewing beer or making bread.

My academic journey up to this point focused on a career in international development. Since my undergraduate years at Cornell University, I always planned to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). But after I graduated and attended The University of Chicago’s Harris School, I learned how to apply data analytics and program evaluation techniques to a range of policy issues. I gained the confidence to work beyond my initial interests and explore other government sectors.

When I received an email in August about a new University of Chicago class, Hacking for Defense, designed for students to address urgent technological and military challenges, I needed a spot. Even though I don’t possess a military or STEM background, I was excited to join an interdisciplinary team committed to developing innovative solutions for the DoD. I’ve listened to enough lectures and written too many reading-responses on policy initiatives. Now I wanted to be a part of the process.

Understanding the Landscape:

Hacking for Defense offered a range of DoD projects, from streamlining regiment supplies to monitoring satellites. But the title of ‘Understanding the Bio-manufacturing Supply Chain’ seemed like an untapped sector. And with a team comprised of a law student, two international relations masters candidates, a molecular engineering undergrad, and myself, we set off.

From the start, I was unaware of the defense applications, manufacturing infrastructure, or invested stakeholders associated with synthetic biology. But we soon learned that bio-manufacturing is the process of utilizing fermentation and genetically engineered microbes to produce novel and environmentally friendly materials with a wide variety of defense applications.

The University of Chicago Hacking for Defense Bio-manufacturing Team

Our goal was to assess how the DoD can facilitate and fund a domestic end-to-end bio-manufacturing supply chain. Our team sponsor, Wallace Patterson, a Program Manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory (ARFL), built our initial industry connections and served as a guide throughout the process. By conducting interviews with defense officials, private-sector leaders, lab researchers, venture capital firms, and biotech start-up CEOs, we analyzed the domestic capabilities and resources needed to build a fully secure supply-chain. Since we were all new to the world of defense innovations, our team could provide a fresh and unbiased perspective to the DoD.

Assessing the Supply-Chain

The DoD sees the country’s lack of bio-manufacturing as a threat to global competitiveness. The U.S. lags behind in vision and investment compared to China and the European Union (EU). Both possess a favorable regulatory landscape and trained workforce to support a thriving bioeconomy. China effectively plans its industry developments over the next several decades and integrates the commercial sector into its military agenda. The EU prioritizes bioprocesses and incentivizes companies to innovate away from petroleum. U.S. biotech companies can outsource their genomic sequencing needs to China or the EU and complete these processes accurately and efficiently.

Our team’s industry knowledge quickly grew as stakeholders described the most pressing supply chain vulnerabilities. From cybersecurity threats to the lack of infrastructure for scaling-up prototype manufacturing, the domestic supply chain seemed a long way from complete end-to-end production. Scientists and public affairs officers from groups such as Amyris, the Engineering Biology Research Consortium, and Ginkgo BioWorks all contributed to the list of issues. The U.S. needs to shift away from petroleum, train a larger bio-manufacturing workforce, and build more fermentation facilities across the country.

Our Issue Tree of the Supply Chain Vulnerabilities

The supply chain is not fragile in all aspects. There are groups able to conduct pilot-phase research, as well as, large-scale contract manufacturing. Several biotech companies lead the industry with novel molecules capable of addressing the DoD’s missions. Cybersecurity firms can improve the quality of laboratory measurements. Start-ups are building innovative dual-use products for warfighters and civilians.

But we encountered a reoccurring narrative. Companies or laboratories entered partnerships with the DoD, but eventually cut ties. The DoD often did not clearly communicate how biotech could meet their operational needs, making it difficult for companies to advertise their capabilities. Selling molecules to the commercial sector became more efficient and lucrative.

Pivoting Assumptions

Midway through the project, our team hit a wall. Every interview rehashed the same list of supply chain vulnerabilities. We originally assumed that the U.S. entirely lacks the resources for growth. But we quickly learned that the U.S already possesses the advanced capabilities to design and produce novel biotechnologies. The DoD just needs to begin facilitating productive partnerships and investments for further innovation.

Outsourcing genomic sequencing internationally is cheaper as the U.S does not possess the same fermentation-infrastructure as China. But if the bio-economy is crucial to protecting global competitiveness and national security, why does the biotech community struggle to see the DoD as a viable consumer?

Alexander Titus, founder of Bioeconomy.XYZ helped answer our questions and reframe our thinking. He described how the warfighter rarely cares about the science behind a technology’s improved performance (aka the “how”). If a laboratory can make a flame-deterrent material for an aircraft through biology or with a much cheaper, chemical process, DoD program managers will most likely go with traditional methods. But this logic is short-sighted.

Bio-manufacturing can push the DoD forward. It allows the defense community to design and manufacture novel products for the warfighter. The DoD can accelerate the growth of this industry and create a new area of strategic military advantages. But this requires greater coordination between the DoD, private-sector companies, and other stakeholders integral to the bio-economy.

Strategic Recommendation: Stakeholder Coordination

We continued to observe a communication disconnect between the DoD and stakeholders at each end of the supply chain. Difficult acquisition processes deterred collaboration. Biotech companies struggled to meet the DoD’s operational demands. Academic laboratories did not know what conditions their molecules will face during the scale-up process. Before securing a domestic supply chain, the DoD must lift this communication barrier.

Our team recommended that the DoD create a Bio-manufacturing Taskforce to enhance stakeholder coordination. An organization made up of a range of actors and dedicated to the biotech industry will allow the DoD to find commercial sector solutions to its operational needs. The Taskforce should be an interdisciplinary group comprised of defense officials, industry leaders, laboratory researchers, and members that have experience both with DoD internal processes and commercial manufacturing. The DoD can then use this collaborative effort to prioritize future bio-economy investments and keep up with foreign industry developments. The bio-manufacturing industry will keep advancing domestically and abroad. But the DoD must prioritize supporting this future growth.

Moving Forward

The path to a growable runway is not far off. But there must be an administrative infrastructure for funding and facilitating these projects. The DoD must incentivize partnerships that will represent the foundation of a secure, end-to-end supply chain.

Hacking for Defense allowed our team to bring an outsider’s perspective to the world of defense innovations and biotech. We did not all need a STEM or military background to gain footing and respect in this field. In a way, our recommendation to create a Biomanufacturing Taskforce, made up of an interdisciplinary group of industry actors, was a reflection of us. We each brought a policy background unrelated to biotech, but also an unbiased awareness of the pains of industry stakeholder. We used our past experiences to provide comparisons and offer insight on effective program implementation. This allowed us to effectively survey the defense community and assess the communication barriers hindering biotech developments

I’ll take this lesson to wherever I work after graduation. It’s ok that our team started from understanding biomanufacturing as brewing beer. Initial ignorance should not be a deterrent to pursuing a career in biotech or defense. The discussion table must be filled with fresh eyes.

Special thanks to my teammates — Sasha Timakova, Thomas Blaubach, Brooke Roberts, & Varun Patel.


Innovation for the Bioeconomy

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