More sustainability through industrial biotechnology

June 28, 2018

Biotechnology can make a major contribution to more sustainable industries and help to design industrial production processes that are more resource- and climate-friendly. Before this can take place, however, obstacles have to be overcome, for instance concerning technology and research support or international cooperation. To do so, the PROGRESS project, which has been funded by the European Union, has developed recommendations for the broad deployment of industrial biotechnology and has drawn up future scenarios.

Biotechnology is one of the key enabling technologies for European industry, whose relevance is expected to grow strongly in future due to the trend towards a more sustainable economy. In order to increase its contribution to the movement away from fossil energy sources via innovative solutions, however, biotechnology must be widely applied in industry and accepted by society. How can this be achieved? Which trends could play a major role here? Fraunhofer ISI’s research project “PROGRESS – Priorities for Addressing Opportunities and Gaps of Industrial Biotechnology for an Efficient Use of Funding Resources“ addressed these questions. The project was commissioned as part of the European Union's Research and Innovation Programme Horizon 2020 (2014-2020).

The project makes recommendations on how to foster the broad deployment of industrial biotechnology, based on workshops and interviews with more than one hundred biotech experts from across Europe. An analysis was made of value chains in “lignocellulosic ethanol“, “bio-based plastics“, “enzymes“, “production of biopharmaceuticals“, “biotechnologically produced flavors and fragrances“ and “microbiomes for food and healthy nutrition“, and future scenarios were elaborated for these fields.

As one result of the project, the future scenarios developed show that there can only be large-scale use of biotechnology in industry if there are positive developments at several levels: According to the authors from Fraunhofer ISI, a central aspect is comprehensive support of key enabling technologies and innovative research fields in biotechnology. Sven Wydra, who heads the project at Fraunhofer ISI, emphasizes that in future “optimizing biotechnological production processes, and conversion of waste into valuable chemicals has to be explored further and that biotechnology has to be more closely integrated with other technologies like bioinformatics and chemistry“. Wydra argues that the different scientific disciplines will have to work more closely together for this to happen. Although experts will still be required in the respective specialized fields, it will be increasingly important to have basic knowledge of other fields as well. This can only be achieved by modifying the education system and through life-long learning.

However, technology progress on its own will not be sufficient to integrate biotechnological methods into many industrial value chains. The positive evolution of an industrial innovation ecosystem will be critical. For the future expansion and commercialization of industrial biotechnology, the acceptance and trust of the general public and decision makers are also essential. Both are fostered by the perception and awareness of the ecological, economic and social benefits of industrial biotechnology. Public opinion of industrial biotechnology is generally rather positive, but this varies strongly by target group or product segment. Possible concerns should be taken seriously and addressed by dialogues. Industrial biotechnology should also be aligned to the UN’s sustainable development goals so that it can help to meet societal challenges like combating hunger, and protecting the environment and climate.

According to the project team, another important prerequisite for biotechnology’s industrial application is a more intensive collaboration across European Member States. So far, important biotechnological capacities and resources are concentrated mainly in Central Europe. Fraunhofer ISI recommends stronger cooperation across countries to improve the access to knowledge and to pool complementary skills and resources. High quality research and innovation could be facilitated using this approach, avoiding duplicity of efforts, while the technological leadership of individual countries is reinforced, which will ultimately benefit all EU countries.

A summary of all the recommendations can be found in the project‘s final report.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.