“Wood is the key to our innovation and one way to sustainably feed the world in the future.”
With the world’s population projected to dramatically rise to 10 billion by 2050, there will be a need for society to do more with less and to take action. As incomes rise, people increasingly will consume more resource-intensive, animal-based foods. In fact, as the world continues to urbanise, sustainable development depends increasingly on the successful management of urban growth, according to the United Nations. This will also mean the introduction of a sustainable food supply chain.
US-based company Arbiom (@arbiom) is already addressing this challenge to meet the world’s growing nutritional needs by integrating a historically non-food, renewable carbon source – wood – into the food supply chain to produce protein.
Here, Liz Gyekye, senior content manager at Bio-Based World News, catches up with Arbiom’s business development manager Emily Glenn.
Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind Arbiom?
Emily Glenn (EG): By 2050, we need to feed 10 billion people. This will require more food production, especially feed for animals using less resources. Arbiom is committed to helping address this challenge by commercialising our “Wood to Food” technology enabling production of protein from wood, an otherwise non-food crop that is abundant and renewable. Wood is the key to our innovation and one way to sustainably feed the world in the future.
Thanks to the existing supply chains via the well-established paper industry, wood is very much available as a by-product in mills around the world. Around 30-70% of the side streams in this process can be burned onsite. So, we see this as a real opportunity to produce a higher value product from this existing biomass material that is currently being burnt. The inspiration for our technology is actually from mother nature. If you imagine walking through a forest, you will see mushrooms sometimes growing on decaying wood. Arbiom’s technology replicates this process on an industrial scale to produce a high-protein ingredient in large volumes.
The technology is comprised of pre-treatment and fractionation of biomass material. We then extract a nutritious substrate which we can take and grow a natural, non-GM organism through fermentation. We obtain a protein called SylPro. This is an alternative protein that can replace products like fish meal and soy protein concentrate.
LG: Before working at Arbiom, what did you do?
EG: I have experience in finance, clean energy and technology, working in leadership roles at companies including Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Merrill Lynch and IBM. I have also consulted with investors and entrepreneurs on fundraising strategy and investment due diligence. I earned my MBA from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, and my BA in Economics and Political Science from Duke University. All in all, I am passionate about taking on big challenges for society and the planet.
LG: What advice would you give to somebody starting out in this space?
EG: First and foremost, I think one should never underestimate the importance of collaboration across the value chain, and this is a theme that comes up again and again in publications and your conversations. I think another key element we have focused on at Arbiom is the importance of communicating with customers to really understand their needs and the market, and to be able to clearly identify the unique benefits and value of your product or technology – and most of the time these are not just about sustainability. Once you can really articulate a focused message about how your company or product benefits or solves customer needs, it’s much easier to develop strong partnerships that create value for all stakeholders.
LG: What is coming up next for Arbiom?
EG: Arbiom has reached a technology level readiness to scale up from pilot to demo scale, with ambition to build the first commercial Wood to Food plant in the near future. We will be launching a demonstration programme in 2019-2020 as well as conducting animal trials of SylPro for multiple species. The demo programme will generate the data and engineering intel to de-risk design and construction of the first Wood to Food commercial production unit. We are producing SlyPro material thanks to partner facilities in the interim of the first commercial plant coming online. Throughout 2019, we will be conducting animal trials to look at SylPro’s performance as a protein ingredient in feed for multiple species, in terms of feed conversion ratio, digestibility and other data that we will share with customers and partners.
Looking ahead, I’m most excited about continuing to build our partnerships in the bio-based industry and with customers in the animal nutrition space.
LG: What challenges does Arbiom face in growing the company?
EG: I think one of the challenges will be aligning production of SylPro for trials and customers while we’re developing and building the first commercial production plant. We’ll do this with partners both offering pre-treatment and fermentation facilities.
As you know, scaling-up industrial technology can be capital-intensive and has unique risks different from other industries. However, we are confident that we are on the right path in terms of our process development and product commercialisation. We are raising funds to augment our current investors in the next round to accelerate development and commercialisation over the next two years.
LG: Do you believe the sustainability agenda is moving forward?
EG: Sustainability is becoming increasingly important due to resource efficiency, particularly when it comes to looking at issues of freshwater and land. I think there are so many opportunities related to circularity, carbon upcycling and waste re-purposing – I think the wave of innovations in this space is only just beginning and I think it is the chapter for sustainability.
LG: What’s your favourite bio-based/sustainability product?
EG: SylPro! Ok biased view, but it’s really exciting to see the innovations happening in upcycling waste. As an example, Canada-based clean tech company Enerkem turning trash into ethanol, methanol and the host of products and materials.
Emily Glenn will be speaking at this year's World Bio Markets Conference, the leading assembly for the bio-based economy, which takes place from 1-3 April in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.