BBGI Plc, the biotechnology arm of energy conglomerate Bangchak Corporation Plc, aims to be among Thailand’s pioneers in the development of new products in the growing “synbio” sector.
Synbio is an abbreviation of synthetic biology, a field of science that involves redesigning organisms, notably microbes, for specific purposes by engineering them to have new abilities.
The field is expected to be a new economic driver, in line with the bio-economy, part of the state-promoted bio-, circular and green (BCG) economic development scheme.
Bio-economy emphasises sustainable production by converting renewable resources into value-added products, ranging from food and feed to energy.
Seeing new business opportunities in the synbio field, BBGI, which is a joint venture between Bangchak and ethanol manufacturer Khon Kaen Sugar Industry Plc, is cooperating with a US-based startup specialising in developing bio-based products using modern sophisticated biotechnology.
SEARCHING FOR VALUE
BBGI teamed up with Manus Bio Inc to develop value-added products other than biodiesel, a type of biofuel.
Biodiesel, a mix of palm oil-derived methyl ester and diesel, was previously promoted by the government to reduce dependence on oil and support palm oil prices to ensure adequate revenue for palm growers.
Both Bangchak Corporation and Khon Kaen Sugar Industry have been key biofuel makers for two decades.
During the global surge in oil prices, the methyl ester blend increased the price of biodiesel, causing the government to announce a measure to reduce the proportion of methyl ester used in biodiesel.
BBGI had planned to develop new bio-based products before the government adjusted its biodiesel policy.
The company spent many years looking for the right business partner until it found Manus Bio, a startup which has developed an advanced fermentation technology and is adept at applying synbio know-how.
Bangchak Corporation injected 800 million baht under Series B financing into Manus Bio via BBGI.
Mr Kittiphong sees an opportunity to develop new value-added products related to health and wellness.
“Previously we redesigned our business by adding value to commodity-grade agricultural products to make biofuel. Now this will be our new chapter — to add value to the manufacture of products related to health and wellness,” said Kittiphong Limsuwannarot, chief executive of BBGI.
The move came as the government encouraged manufacturers to follow the BCG economic model, aiming to make it a rapidly growing sector over the next 2-3 decades because Thailand is rich in biological resources.
The investment in Manus Bio not only made BBGI a major investor in the US startup, but also paved the way for BBGI to make significant progress in advanced technologies.
Mr Kittiphong said BBGI expects to receive technology transfer from Manus Bio, particularly in terms of modern fermentation processes.
According to BBGI, Manus Bio is good at synbio development because biology experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology work for the company.
Manus Bio created a low-cost process for engineering microbes with complex metabolic pathways borrowed from plants, which can produce an array of rare and expensive ingredients used to manufacture non-caloric beverages as well as perfumes, toothpastes, detergents, pesticides and even therapeutics.
In 2018, Manus Bio launched in the US a “next-generation natural zero-calorie sweetener” made from plants.
“Manus Bio is good at redesigning microbes that are fed with sugar and developing new bio-based products under modern fermentation processes,” he said.
To further grow businesses in the synbio field, BBGI and Manus Bio agreed to form a joint venture by setting up Win Ingredients Co under a plan to produce and distribute high value-added products in Asia, especially Southeast Asia.
BBGI made a 51% investment in Win Ingredients Co, with the remainder invested by Manus Bio.
Other countries, including China and India, also approached Manus Bio on developing production facilities in their countries, but the US company decided to choose Thailand, reasoning that most Thais respect intellectual property rights, which are regarded as a “serious issue”, said Mr Kittiphong.
Win Ingredients is in the pre-marketing stage before the launch of its products.
The company needs two years before making a final decision on developing a production facility in Thailand, he said.
BBGI said earlier it plans to test the market with a sweetener made from stevia, a sugar substitute obtained from plants.
The raw material will be imported from Manus Bio’s production plant in the US.
OFF THE SHELVES
Mr Kittiphong expects the synbio business development to help encourage greater use of research papers in biotechnology in order to commercialise them.
He said more R&D projects should progress to the industrial production stage, but unfortunately many research findings simply end up being shelved.
Thailand has a large quantity of R&D work that can benefit manufacturers who are planning new product development, said Mr Kittiphong.
Using research papers could also provide a new business opportunity for small and medium-sized enterprises, he said.
BBGI is not the only company that intends to make greater use of research papers.
The National Science and Technology Development Agency also announced it plans to apply research work at production facilities to be developed in the Eastern Economic Corridor of Innovation in Rayong.
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