So Where Do We Go from Here?

Looking to the past can help forecast the future
By Peter Brown | November 21, 2011

When looking ahead in the biofuels world, it makes sense to take a walk through the world of high technology in 1983. CPM was the operating system of choice, Apple was a small PC maker and IBM was still flaunting large systems sales. But change was in the air; companies like Commodore, Osborne, Kay and Actrix were showing glimmers of what was to come. Networked office systems using word processing to feed printers, communications over phone lines and the first cell phones were the executive perk of choice. The Altair, a kit-built, wire wrapped “computer” was a thing of the past, the future was clear, the path ahead, however, was fuzzy.

It is 2012 and in biotechnology, we are in the exact same situation as we were in digital 1983 facing a world full of amazing possibilities. Now it seems that everything is up for grabs and the new geeks are chemical engineers and biology majors with attitudes. The technologies are well understood, the science unchanged for 20 years except that they have become highly refined and infinitely flexible. It seems that enzymatic tribulations and feedstock options are defining the new biotech. Diesel from pond scum, long a dream, is now a reality in demonstration plants; sugar production from a massive new catalog of waste matter is invading the ethanol market while opening new avenues for critical chemicals from the same hardware with different software combinations.

In a scenario eerily similar to 1983 high-tech, big money is slowly coming on stream. Solazyme, LS9, Amyris and others floated huge IPOs and signed massive mutual assistance contracts with establishment partners. Procter & Gamble is supporting LS9, ExxonMobil has its hands in several biotech companies and probably not for corporate write-offs. Reminiscent of when Hambrecht and Quist bird-dogged Apple and Intel was subtly salting the market with cash and technology? Those days are back, only now they are part of an international network that includes biofuels giant Brazil, the hungry Chinese, Iranian money begging to be free, Vinod Khosla and other visionaries betting megabucks on tiny organisms. There are large, inscrutable hedge funds, gently prodding small companies in the right direction.

If we accept that high-tech is the paradigm, then where is this going? It means more from less, cheaper, faster and more efficient conversion technologies. The biotech industry still has very little idea of how big and how transformative it will be. Right now medicines, fuels, cosmetics, food additives and derivatives have each spawned their own revolution.

Take the narrow world of biofuels. Not so long ago, there was either bioethanol or biodiesel from renewable sources. In that microcosm, biodiesel came from soy oil and ethanol from corn. In the past few years alone, we have seen ethanol booming in Brazil based on sugarcane, switchgrass in California, trees in the U.K. and literally hundreds of new varieties of possible feedstock. Ethanol now comes in Heinz 57 varieties from drop-in fuels to additives and chemicals like biobutanol, tire black, road slurry and other weird and wonderful things. Biodiesel is even more bizarre, from soy to animal fats, jatropha, algae, camelina, poppy seeds, waste vegetable oil and strange plants and animals and anything in between. The end product is becoming popular in New England as heating oil, powering jumbo jets, cleaning up after oil spills and changing a petroleum-hungry world into a renewable alternative world, and, oh yes, knocking carbons out of the sky by the ton.

On a practical level, how does this affect us all right now? The biology major of today is the computer engineer of 1983. The richest people in the world, apart from the Walton family, are the computer and software engineers like Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs and others. So send yourself and your children back into the life sciences if you want to change the world. Because of a natural confluence of a number of unrelated facts, we are really only seeing the tip of the iceberg: the human genome project is done, and genetic engineering has become a fact of life. Small bacteria can be modified to produce a number of living organisms and the whole ethical challenge of a Monsanto suing people for unwillingly using their seeds needs to be reviewed. Third World countries becoming harvesting gulags for large concentrations of plantations paying minimal wages are starting to appear. Jatropha trees, while politically correct because they are nonfood, also raise the specter of subsistence farmers being forced off their land because they cannot compete with multinational agronomy monsters.

Looking ahead, from 1983, will we track the ups and downs of the Silicon Valley revolution and master the mistakes that were made then?  That’s a difficult question with no clear answer. We can only hope that 2012 will fulfill the promises of the early days of the microchip by bringing stability to our world without the penalties of high-tech allowing a world that resembles 1984 more than 2012.

Author: Peter Brown
Principal, Euro Marketing Tools
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