WORLD INDUSTRIAL BIOTECHNOLOGY CONGRESS
Published on 09/23/2015
Published on 09/23/2015
The BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, organised by the Association BIO, was held in Montreal from 19 to 22 July 2015. More than 40 pays were represented by nearly 1 000 delegates, including a French delegation of around 25 participants under the banner of IAR (Industry & Agro-Resource competitive cluster, Marne).
Montreal seems to be a destination of choice, since the 10th congress was also held there, and this edition seems to have been unreservedly appreciated by participants.
Le programme included plenary sessions, but also eight parallel thematic sessions. This system seemed rather disproportionate, but in practice, few participants seemed to want to attend two concurrent sessions, so the organization seems to work relatively well.
What were the main lessons to be learnt from this congress?
Going through a bad patch?
Unlike at the 2014 congress, which was held in Philadelphia, no projects for new second-generation (or even first-generation) biorefineries in the United States were announced. In 2014, at least four second-generation projects that had reached maturity (DUPONT in Nevada, Iowa, Liberty by DSM-POET in Emmetsburg, Iowa, Hugoton, in Kansas by ABENGOA and Vero-Beach in by par INEOS) headlined the congress. There was nothing comparable this year. Two possible explanations are put forward: the problems and delays in the renewal of the RFS 2 mandate; and the effect of the relatively low price of fossil fuels such as shale gas.
It is interesting to note that the representatives from other countries were not queuing up to announce dynamic well-advanced projects. Reading between the lines, I even understand that one of the two projects in Brazil that had been extensively promoted in previous years is in difficulty in terms of its performance.
Nor did Europe show many signs of dynamism, apart from the announcement that the MATRICA project by NOVAMONT in Porto Torres had been selected by the public-private partnership BIC as its FLAGSHIP programme. This is good news, but limited in effect since the project is already well-advanced and very well-known in the profession.
The same remark could be made about the demonstrators insofar as there was no significant announcement of new platforms opening during the congress by delegates from the United States or any other country. Nor were there any announcements of important new partnerships, as there were in previous years (AVENTIUM and COCA-COLA etc.)
Guaranteed funding for no-risk projects?
This feeling of puzzlement was confirmed in the different sessions dealing with project funding. First, these were the most successful of the parallel sessions, with up to 90 people attending. Some of the participants had already taken part in many funding roundtables, and the level of the delegates was mostly extremely high. The different speakers seemed to have agreed amongst themselves to discourage the candidates. It is true that funding of between 20 and 40 million dollars, or even 120 million dollars in exceptional cases, is possible in the USA, but only for platforms leading to practically guaranteed sales as soon as the funds are raised.
Does this mean that the industrial bioeconomy is showing signs of losing momentum before it has even established itself durably on the market? Perhaps not.
The impression that the sector is going through a bad patch might be offset by other much more positive observations.
This speculation would delight Europe, but it needs to be treated with a great deal of caution: perhaps the cycle, strongly criticised, in which R&D development have taken place in Europe and have been followed by industrial scale establishments in North America may eventually be a profitable one. The case of succinic acid, developed in Bazancourt, France and then launched industrially in Sarnia, Ontario by BIO AMBER, was perceived as a serious failure for European reindustrialisation. However, a third stage might yet see the light of day: important industrial sites may be established in Europe after an initial development in America. It is too early to be a large-scale operator. This would provide a second chance and a fair return, but this type of project was mentioned during the congress by European representatives.
“Follow the technology?”
Another observation became clear as the appeared as the congress unfolded: the confidence many actors have in the benefits of investing in and committing to R&D. Certain heavyweights in the profession now have teams of 1 000 or even 1 600 researchers on different sites. Less important actors are reinforcing their teams (there are rumours of the recruitment of 100 researchers by a single European operator). Unexpected applications were applauded as success stories to encourage risk-taking. Several firms explained that they are developing internal demonstration platforms. The adage “follow the technology” was taken up several times during the plenary or parallel sessions, even though several speakers warned that commercialisation will require even more resources and time than many anticipate.
Industrial bioeconomy: an increasingly resilient sector?
The great majority of participants seemed to recognise the fact that the time factor has to be considered more carefully: reaching TRL levels first, and then convincing the markets, it will take between 10 and 15 years! To sum up, we must be more confident in the future (“we are here for the long run”).
Overall, more technology is available, the range of solutions and applications is growing, access costs are falling, and realism is establishing itself: so many signs of the sector’s maturity and self-confidence?
As the next annual BioWorld congress will be in San Diego in April 2016, there will be time to measure the solidity of these remarks and the direction the sector takes in the long run.
Holder of the NEOMA BS Chair in Industrial Bioeconomy