This shoebox-sized tech could help transform manufacturing
Evolutor wants to make a big impact on the planet with its 'biofoundry'
Today I bring you the third startup in the biotech space that we’ve covered this month. Well, Entrepreneur First’s Matt Clifford did recently tell PreSeed Now that biotech was a particular opportunity for the UK. Scroll down to read all about Evolutor.
Friday’s no-so-mini-budget has caused earthquakes across the business world. But amid the crashing pound and concerns for the future of public services, there was at least some good news if you’re building a startup.
An increase in the SEIS limit is one the ray of light that will please readers of this newsletter. For more on the impacts for startups, see this Twitter thread from Coadec’s Dom Hallas.
P.S. This morning I’m heading to Manchester’s Bonded Warehouse to give a bunch of startups on the Exchange programme a talk about communicating with investors, customers, and the media. If you’d like a similar talk (in person or remotely), drop me a line.
👀 Things to keep an eye on
Has Tech Nation really lost a chunk of government funding to Barclays? Eyebrows are being raised across the industry, and my thoughts are with the Tech Nation staff facing uncertainty right now.
A new portal for cross-border collaboration between tech companies in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland looks interesting.
If you’re interested in university deep tech spinouts like the one featured in today’s newsletter, Bloc Ventures and Northern Gritstone’s upcoming event in Manchester is well worth a look.
Evolutor wants to build a ‘biofoundry’ to help industries tackle the climate crisis
Some of the biggest solutions to the rapidly developing climate crisis might come from the smallest sources.
Enter biomanufacturing, which creates molecules that can be used to manufacture fuels, foods, chemicals, biodegradable plastics and more, from natural, sustainable sources - and it could have a substantial environmental impact.
Sheffield startup Evolutor is part of this movement. CEO and co-founder Joe Price has an ambitious vision for building a huge ‘biofoundry’ in the city. Unsurprisingly, he’s a big advocate for biomanufacturing:
“Much like how in the process of brewing beer we insert a yeast that consumes sugar and produces alcohol, we can edit the DNA of yeast and bacteria to produce things other than alcohol… a massive range of basically any kind of biologically derived compound can be produced by a biological system.
“A lot of the estimates that academics and commercial research groups have made [are that it] uses up to 80% less land, similar reduction in water use, and potentially up to 90% or above reduction in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. So potentials have a massive impact on industry as a whole.”
Biomanufacturing can take two approaches, Price explains: either editing existing DNA to create a desired microbe, or steering the hand of evolution. As its name suggests, Evolutor is focused on the latter.
Price says the evolutionary approach hasn’t had as much attention from industry and academia because it’s much slower than gene editing. But he sees the two approaches as complementary. While you might use gene editing to create a novel compound, evolution can then be used to refine it into something commercially viable.
“When you've changed an organism's DNA, that's quite an aggressive thing to do to that being, and it can have a lot of knock-on effects. Biology as a whole is very, very complex beyond our understanding; the way genes and DNA interlink and how change can have knock-on effects. Evolution can be used after this first step of gene editing to fix the fitness of the microbe.”
While Price would prefer to keep the specific details of how Evolutor’s process works under his hat (patent pending and trade secrets, folks), he describes it as a “platform technology” combining hardware, software, and biological tools.
Central to the technology is a miniaturised bioreactor, around the size of a shoebox, where the startup grows a culture and subjects it to evolutionary regimes, which are managed via the software.
This software automates changes to the environment in the reactor. “Maybe at a really simple level increasing temperatures to evolve something that's more tolerant to high temperatures, or pumping in a toxic chemical to evolve a strain that's more tolerant to this inhibitor,” says Price.
“And we also increase the diversity through quite traditional mutagenesis approaches to create more mutants, and also through our novel biological tools as well.”
The story so far
Evolutor’s story began in early 2020 when Price began working at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. He and the team he would co-found the startup with developed the Evolutor technology as part of grant-funded academic work.
Price then went through a market discovery process via the Lean Launch and ICURe programmes to assess demand for the tech. He says he ended up speaking to more than 100 companies around the world from his bedroom (ah, the joys of lockdown).
The positive response led the Evolutor founding team to envisage what Price describes as “an advanced ‘biofoundry’, hopefully in Sheffield, that can have a real global impact on accelerating some of these bio-industrial processes and get them to market as soon as possible.”
Price says, an Evolutor biofoundry would house hundreds, or even thousands, of its tiny bioreactors (they’re working on making them even smaller than shoebox-size). These, he says, would be “each working autonomously 24/7 to run evolutionary regimes and produce a vast range of commercially-ready microbes that then can be essentially used like plug-and-play systems for people who are biomanufacturing at scale.”
In practice, this would mean Evolutor provided off-the-shelf assistance for the biomanufacturing process.
“If they want to use a particular feedstock to grow their microbiome, if they're having particular problems with tolerances, or they want a particular resistance to high temperatures or to work at low temperatures, we've got something in our library that we've produced in our biofoundry that we can just give to them and massively reduce their research and development time, and get them to market as soon as possible.”
Evolutor spun out of the university as a startup in January this year and has been gradually growing its team beyond the three co-founders Price, Dr. Tuck Seng Wong, and Dr. Kang Lan Tee.
Price says the startup is in the process of of lining up trial partners who are looking to optimise microbes they’ve developed themselves
“We’re doing that as a launching point to validate just what our technology can do and to get our name out there in the market… but the aim is to move towards a much more scalable business model as soon as possible.
“So the goal is to move towards building this biofoundry as soon as possible and having this library of our own advanced high performance microbes that we can licence out on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis across biofuels and chemicals industries and food tech, and agritech industries as well.
“So there's some quite massive opportunities and very large markets there which we're hoping to capture some percentage of in the next two or three years.”
Competition, investment, and plans for the future
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