Jan 22, 2021

Biofacturing: The inevitable shift in how we make everything from food to phones

A Faster, Cheaper, Greener Way to Make Previously Unthinkable Products

Zymergen’s reconfigurable automation system

Biofacturing as seen from DNA’s perspective: Riding along on Zymergen’s infinitely reconfigurable automation system on the way from molecule to market (full video below).

We’re on the cusp of an industrial revolution that is going to change the way we make things in the world. It involves a shift from petroleum to natural, biological building blocks, whose greater diversity enables breakthrough products with incredible new properties.

Why now? Building on advances in AI, automation, and biology, Zymergen created a technology platform that unlocks the greatest manufacturer of all: nature. This platform is enabling us to pinpoint molecules from nature’s catalog, produce them with biology, and then scale them to market at the speed of the digital age, in sectors as diverse as electronics, personal care, food, and farming.

And the beauty of it all is that it’s better for the environment. We call this new industrial paradigm biofacturing, and here’s what it looks like.

Key Features of Biofacturing

There are three big steps of biofacturing: design, create, and scale. There are lots of other steps in between, but these are the most important. Accelerated by automation and machine learning, biofacturing carries out these steps at a scale and speed that enables never-before-seen products at timescales that make traditional manufacturing blush.

Four potential breakthrough products from biofacturing

  1. Phone screens that bend, not break
  2. Microbes that transform waste plastic into high-performance materials
  3. Insecticides and bug repellents that are safer for people
  4. Adhesives that debond on demand to enable electronics recycling
  1. Design product: Beginning with a problem or unmet market need, we search nature’s catalog of molecules to find building blocks for breakthrough products that are bioreachable (i.e., can be made with biology). This gives us new bio-based functionality and bio-inspired designs that can’t be achieved with conventional chemistry.
  2. Create microbe: We design, build, and test microbes to make the desired molecules using the same natural process used for making bread and beer. This is where the tools of synthetic biology, gene editing, and vast metagenomic libraries come into play. With each new project, our machine learning tools improve our ability to find the next breakthrough product.
  3. Scale production: We optimize our microbes and scale the fermentation processes, while formulating the molecule into a product that meets the commercial need. Here’s where we shine: going from great idea to manufacturing reality.

In the end, biofacturing delivers a product that is not simply a bio-based drop-in, but rather creates new value in the world. These are ‘impossible materials,’ made in partnership with nature, in terms of both the starting materials and their long-term environmental impact.

Biofacturing Versus Biomanufacturing

Making things from biology is nothing new. Fermentation has been using microbes to make things like beer and wine for 10,000 years. Over the past several decades, industry has taken this one step further to make medicines, agricultural products, and more. But these early biomanufacturing efforts have been severely limited by an inability to first find useful products in nature, and then make them at commercial scale.

Zymergen Tech Platform

The Zymergen approach to biofacturing. Our platform fuses biology and technology, and grows smarter over time.

Biofacturing stands apart from biomanufacturing by overcoming the twin hurdles of discovery and delivery at scale. With tools such as Zymergen’s metagenomic database, we can now more fully explore and utilize nature’s large palette of building blocks. We can not only find the best molecule in nature for the job, but also the best microbe to produce it.

The result: Biofacturing is biomanufacturing at the speed of the digital age. One example from Zymergen is our bioelectronic film, Hyaline. Biofacturing enabled us to bring to market a product with remarkable properties more quickly than conventional manufacturing, using production facilities that look like wineries, not refineries.

The Implications of Biofacturing

From an economic standpoint, McKinsey estimates that 60% of the world’s physical inputs could be made with biology, representing USD$2-$4 trillion in annual direct economic potential in agriculture, materials & energy, consumer products, and health/pharma.

Why the term biofacturing?

The “manu-” in manufacturing means “made by hand,” and biomanufacturing means “making biological products by hand.” The biofacturing paradigm is characterized by massive-scale automation that is impossible to do by conventional hand pipetting in the R&D lab. “Biofacturing” is a more accurate term to describe this new industry category – defined by high-throughput scale and speed.

From an environmental standpoint, biofacturing can help mitigate climate change by helping reduce net human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The costs of climate change to human health and economic prosperity are incalculable.

And from a consumer standpoint, biofacturing will offer new products that transform our daily lives, from how we grow food and what we eat to how we make materials. In short, the world economy will be fundamentally changed as we move to biology as the manufacturing method of choice.

Biology: The Best Factory of All

The natural world is the best manufacturing system there is. It’s been ‘innovating’ for billions of years, and it makes things greener, better, and cheaper than any conventional factory ever could. Biofacturing seeks to partner with nature to make better products in a better way. By combining machine learning, automation, and molecular biology to nature’s insights, biofacturing represents a way to bring breakthrough products to market more quickly and for less cost. At Zymergen, we see this as a driving force behind a better, greener future for us all.

A detail shot from Zymergen’s RACs system in action. Biofacturing enabled us to bring to market a product with unprecedented properties more quickly than conventional manufacturing.