The BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, this year held from April 17 to April 20 in San Diego, California, is the world’s largest event on the bioeconomy. The “BIO” — as it is called — is an event that attracts business leaders, policy makers, academic professionals, and investors to discuss biofuels, biobased products, materials science, renewable chemicals, synthetic biology and food ingredients.
The conference includes plenary sessions, investor sessions with start-up companies and a break-out program. Moreover, an excellent partnering system is offered through which attendees can easily find attending companies and schedule one-on-one meetings. It is the latter that makes such a conference so useful — this year almost 2000 partnering meetings were scheduled by the conference organization.
The bioeconomy has seen tremendous growth and investments in the past 5 to 10 years. While the initial focus was on biofuels, more specifically 1st generation bioethanol, now there are many developments in the area of bi-obased chemicals and materials.
Still, it is clear that this industry is redefining itselves. Clearly, hype has fuelled part of the activity in this sector. Nowadays, companies look closely to the bottom line of their projects and start-ups are scrutinized for their business case, value chain, and partnering model.
This is reflected at this year’s BIO. There were considerably less start-up companies present, a lot of companies except a few have gone into hibernation mode, and do not appear on such expensive conferences. The optimism that made the Montreal edition in 2015 so vibrant was less prominent this year. The number of participants has equally declined from 1200 to, reportedly, 700 attendees.
Insert your content here[/google_font]Furthermore, the predominant themes on this conference are centered around the “front” of the value chain. A lot of developments are presented around pretreatment technology, fermentation processes, the development of drop-in chemicals and the development of new bio-based chemicals and materials. It appears that the rest of the value chain (downstream, Tier 1/2 producers, brand owners) do not fully participate yet. A few companies do achieve significant market traction, and the Netherlands has a higher-than-average share in that. Examples include the partnering of Avantium with packaging partner Alpa and with Coca-Cola, and Reverdia who announced at the conference the co-development of a new paint containing their succinic acid with paint producers.
Still, there were very few if any developments to observe that actually start with a market need, and subsequently working the value chain backwards to technologies that are able to solve the deficiencies in current materials. Indeed, nobody was talking about changing the automotive landscape by introducing new, lighter but stronger materials. Also, whereas one might expect that a significant number of parties would have the ambition to revolutionize the packaging industry, or to solve the problem of ocean plastic waste, this was striking by its absence At the best, applications of “biodegradable microbeads for the cosmetics industry” is mentioned in passing, as well as the obligatory “slide with applications” in any presentation, listing a long list of bullets of potential applications. To be successful in this arena, the whole value chain needs to participate, and something needs to change there.