The Biomanufacturing Revolution is Here and it Will Change the World

Roy Lipski
Predict
Published in
7 min readMay 6, 2020

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The biomanufacturing revolution is changing the way we think of centralized systems, social equity, our relationship to nature and supply chains

Certain economic upheavals are seismic changes in the way we produce, consume and innovate. But they often happen incrementally and become fully apparent only in retrospect.

I believe we are currently undergoing such a seismic shift in the means of production. The biomanufacturing revolution is changing the way we think of centralized systems, social equity, our relationship to nature and the supply chains that bring us the products we use in our daily lives. These changes are accelerating as biomanufacturing becomes a change agent similar in scope to the Industrial Revolution or the advancements fueled by chemical engineering.

To understand the transformation we are in the middle of, we must rewind and set the stage of how our economies, societies and geographies have been shaped in the past. The recent history of economic production has been a story of consolidation and centralization — a trend that I believe is about to be unwound and reversed by biomanufacturing.

A centuries-long move toward bigger, more centralized economic production with long, costly supply chains is being simplified and re-localized by innovative, nimble and natural biomanufacturing advancements. These biomanufacturing trends are right-sized for regional communities and economies, and promise to leave our environment, societies and economies more adaptable and resilient.

Just like the domestication of farm animals kicked off the agrarian transformation of our societies, and chemical engineering harnessed newfound science to produce products we now take for granted, biomanufacturing is a new paradigm of production that has some similarities to the dispersed production systems of the past.

I call it the Last Great Domestication — the taming of the genome. Through this new frontier we are employing the most efficient, microscopic, mini-factories on the planet — individual cells — to build the production of the future. It’s a more natural, organic and balanced approach to production. And it will have long-lasting impacts on every facet of our lives.

But first, to truly understand its impact, let’s backtrack a few hundred years.

Production is Centralized

The history of economic advancement is the history of taming nature, systemization and centralization.

Dispersed, hunter-gatherer communities domesticated plants and animals to increase the availability of calories, kicking off the agrarian age and the shift to settled societies — the first step towards centralization.

Then the vast and systemic changes of the Industrial Revolution brought a dramatic centralization of economic production, fueled by new concentrated sources of energy, primarily coal. Coal enabled the manufacturing of materials like steel that shaped the scale of buildings and the infrastructure we see today.

Energy is key here. Previously, energy or fuel for agrarian life was dispersed. Feedstock was grown or gathered from local areas, where that energy was then consumed. Coal was energy dense enough to be transported to central factories where systemic, process-driven production could occur. Then new high-value products — valuable enough to warrant the added costs of factories and the energy production needed to fuel them — were transported back to their end consumer. The scene was set for the spiderweb-like supply chains we see covering the globe today.

The Industrial Revolution then accelerated. Innovations in materials and manufacturing processes continued to centralize production. Coal gave way to petroleum — a similarly energy-dense resource, but this time in liquid form that could be transported even more easily at scale through pipelines. Textiles, plastics, building materials and assembly-line production of complex machines resulted in an economy that was consolidated and specialized.

In tandem, societies adapted and reorganized. Agrarian communities plateaued or declined as cities, where manufacturing and specialized economic production flourished, boomed. Agriculture itself become centralized, mechanized and industrialized.

Production Goes Chemical

The same production revolution that had changed the face of the global economic landscape eventually trickled down to the basic building blocks of our world — chemicals. Chemical synthesis created new materials with new properties. Chemical engineering used to design chemical plants for this new synthesis employed the same centralized production model that the Industrial Revolution had pioneered, except this time economies of scale were perhaps even more important.

Because of the unique geometry of chemical plants, bigger was always better. Vessels and factory plumbing could increase output exponentially with each incremental increase in size. This incentive to capture new economies of scale further consolidated economic power in supersized chemical plants, refineries and other advanced manufacturing facilities.

New chemical compositions created everything from Ibuprofen and new plastics to materials like Polyester. But since chemical plants require enormous amounts of investment to build, the lifecycle of these plants is long and the barriers to innovation high.

An Unsustainable System

The massive toll that this production model has had on the natural environment, our societies and our economic equity is becoming more and more apparent.

Today, the nature of our complex and often delicate supply chains is increasingly problematic and susceptible to disruption.

Huge transportation requirements tax our environment and infrastructure. The means of production is often owned by a few large corporations, and the consolidation of wealth and power has followed. Even our towns and cities reflect the design patterns of a transportation-dependent existence, removing the human scale of the pre-automobile age in favor of overbuilt roads and highways to move raw materials to factories and goods back to the communities that consume them.

Meanwhile, we are seeing the fragility of these globalized supply chains and transportation-dependent production systems. Trade conflicts, global pandemics, weather, war and contamination all threaten them constantly.

We’ve long suspected that the system we’ve created is not sustainable, but like a refinery that costs hundreds of millions of dollars to construct, we feel like we’re committed to a system with few exit ramps available.

But the consumer is demanding change. The thirst for local, sustainable and natural products is now a driving economic force. A New York University Stern School of Business report found that products marketed as sustainable represented 50 percent of the growth in the consumer-packaged good industry, while only representing 16.6 percent of the market. The study also found that products marketed as sustainable grew at 5.6 times the pace of goods not marketed as sustainable.

The rise in sustainable and natural products is a reflection of the powerful demographic shift within the nation and world — an accelerating trend that will only grow stronger in the coming decades. Younger consumers — the present and future of economic demand — are flocking to products that are better for their bodies, the earth and the regional communities they call home.

Unwinding Centralized Production at the Cellular Level

Biomanufacturing is almost a hybrid of our agrarian past and our manufacturing present. By harnessing natural systems we can manufacture organic compounds consistently and cost-effectively, and pioneer new alternatives to synthetic or chemical-dependent production.

Biomanufacturing is essentially using microorganisms and cell cultures to create the products and compounds of the present and future — everything from food and flavors to medicine, fabrics and materials.

The magic of biomanufacturing is that it upends many of the destructive aspects of the centralized production model that the Industrial Revolution introduced, but we have not yet outgrown.

The Last Great Domestication

In the same way we domesticated animals centuries ago to produce our food and materials, we are now domesticating the genome, via cell cultures and microorganisms, to produce complex organic products for us.

This is a quantum leap in the means of production, a shift that will ripple through the economic system and change everything from the distribution of our populations to our supply chains and economic systems.

Biomanufacturing plants are smaller and more adaptable — which supports innovation at a speed that cannot be matched by large chemical plants. Their smaller size allows them to be located more locally, where economic power can be distributed to regional communities instead of centralized. Their energy and feedstocks can be sustainable and flexible, sourced from local communities, not distant fossil fuel refineries.

They also rely on a natural process without the ethical and environmental concerns of unsustainable resource extraction and consumption. Building materials, meat, fabrics and flavors can all be created naturally without deforestation, industrialized farming, excessive fossil fuel extraction and the costly and wasteful transportation networks that ferry commodities and goods around the globe.

In essence, it is a complete re-imagination of how we relate to each other, the natural world and the most problematic elements of our current economic systems.

By harnessing the best aspects of biomanufacturing, we can create a future where a new economy supports local communities, empowers new innovation and spreads economic power to segments of society left behind by centralization and consolidation over generations, and do so without doing more harm to our precious planet.

~ Roy Lipski is the founder and CEO of Creo, a California-based biomanufacturing product company. He is a Cambridge–educated entrepreneur who has founded and grown innovative technology companies from startup through IPO to successful merger / exit in fields ranging from Artificial Intelligence to chemical engineering and renewable fuels.

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