It’s not often that you hear DNA described as a wafer – but that’s the analogy that Grant Aarons, the founder of FabricNano, a cell-free biomanufacturing company uses to describe his company’s major product. That DNA, the company hopes, will make a dent in a growing global petrochemical industry that currently relies on fossil fuels and their byproducts.
FabricNano is a London based company founded in 2018 through Entrepreneur First, a technology startup accelerator. FabricNano is invested in the creation of cell-free biomanufacturing. Biomanufacturing, simply, uses the enzymes within a cell or microbe to produce an end-product. FabricNano’s approach is to place those enzymes on the DNA wafer instead (that process is called enzyme immobilization).
Those enzymes, Aarons argues, can produce chemicals, like those used to make drugs or plastics, with higher efficiency compared to cell-based systems, and without the reliance on fossil fuels that are currently used to make those chemicals en masse.The heart of the company is the DNA scaffold, which can house enough enzymes to scale up those reactions.
This week, FabricNano announced $12.5 million in Series A funding this week complete with a cadre of high profile angel investors. The round was led by Atomico, and included investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, actress, UN Sustainability Ambassador Emma Watson, and former Bayer CEO Alexander Moscho.
“We went out and actively tried to get the right angels for the company,” says Aarons. “We also looked at a few different technology angels. Because at the end of the day what we're manufacturing is an enabling technology for manufacturers.
“We're not looking to manufacture bio-based plastics or bio-based monomers, at any sufficient scale,” he continues. “We're looking to provide [manufacturers] with the technology that they can then use to manufacture at scale and at a low enough cost. It is a scalable and sustainable way to make low-value molecules, like bioplastics.”
Part of FabricNano’s identity hinges on creating a bio-based alternative within the growing petrochemical sector.
At the moment, about 14 percent of global oil demand goes towards making plastics. Petrochemicals, or chemicals obtained from oil and gas that can be used to make plastics or other materials, are expected to drive about half of the world’s oil demand by 2050, according to The International Energy Agency’s 2018 projections.
Plastics, a major end-product of the petrochemical industry, contribute to climate change at nearly every point in their life cycles – when they’re manufactured by heating up oil or ethane or when they’re burned as waste. If both plastic production and use continue at their current pace, emissions are projected to reach 1.34 gigatons by 2030 (the equivalent of 295 coal fired power plants), according to the Center for International Environmental Law.
Naturally, making more plastic, no matter how it is made, will contribute to ecological catastrophe in its own way (scientists have called for phase out of “virgin” plastic production by 2040).
Additionally, the nebulous term “bioplastic” can refer to anything from a biodegradable plastic to a plastic created without the use of fossil fuels (even one that is not biodegradable), That makes the world of environmentally-friendly plastics highly susceptible to greenwashing.
The question that remains is how big an impact biomanufacturing can make on reducing petrochemicals’ contribution to climate change? At this point that’s unclear. Aarons argues that part of the appeal of cell-free manufacturing can pull the industry away from using petroleum (or in the US, ethanol) to make plastics or other commodity chemicals.
“We’re really talking about a new technology to take over a lot of the commodities sector, and pull a lot of those petroleum-based products away from petroleum and into the biological realm,” says Aarons.
That said, there are also clear concerns with the production of plastics as-is, leaving room for alternatives to emerge if they prove to be scalable and cost-effective enough to supplant the existing petrochemical industry.
There is some evidence that cell-free manufacturing has already scaled well. For instance, high fructose corn syrup is made when corn starch is broken down by enzymes into glucose. The final step requires one enzyme, glucose isomerase. Aarons calls high fructose corn syrup production “the largest implementation of cell-free in the world.”
FabricNano is partially looking to build upon that concept to offer a greater suite of available chemicals. At the moment, FabricNano can already create chemicals like 1,3 propanediol, an ingredient that can be used to replace polyethylene glycol in toothpaste or shampoo. The input needed to create that product is glycerin, a major waste product of biodiesel manufacturing, which may help keep costs down and provide an alternative feedstock to fossil fuels.
Aarons says that FabricNano has proved capable of making four additional products, but didn’t disclose what kinds. He says FabricNano is “interested in the pharmaceutical space”, and in commodity chemicals. “There are a lot of commodity chemicals we can manufacture. 1,3 propanediol is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
Still, FabricNano’s distinguishing approach probably isn’t the commodity chemicals it has made so far, but the actual DNA scaffold. If the enzymes that stick to that DNA wafer and help produce chemicals are software, the DNA scaffold is FabricNano’s hardware.
That hardware is a major way the company hopes to bring cell-free into the world of commodity chemicals.
“The real missing piece, and why [cell-free manufacturing] has been a niche technology for a long time, is that there has been no generalizable technology to immobilize all of these proteins,” he says.
With the newest round of funding, FabricNano plans to increase its employee workforce from 12 to 30 people, and move into a new London-based office. Total investment in the company stands at $16 million.