The Alternative Fuels and Chemicals Coalition, a bioeconomy industry group, held its second annual Global Biobased Economy Conference this week just outside Washington DC. The mood was optimistic as start-ups and other companies working on biobased fuels and chemicals met with customers, suppliers, consultants, regulators, and advocacy groups in between four tracks of panel discussions and keynote addresses. Attendance at the in-person event was roughly 400, up from the previous year.
One common note sounded by attendees was that the industry is looking for talent. Leaders from DMC Biotechnologies, one of C&EN’s 10 Start-Ups to Watch for this year, ended their two presentations with slides that read “We are hiring!” and sang the praises of Boulder, Colorado, and Raleigh, NC, where it has operations.
Joseph McAuliffe, a technical fellow at the flavor and fragrance firm IFF, said the job market is especially hot for analytical chemists and fermentation engineers. “It’s not a place formally trained analytical chemists usually go,” he said of bioeconomy companies, but “demand for analytical scientists will only increase.”
Shishir Joshipura, CEO of the ethanol and custom fermentation technology provider Praj, said that whereas feedstock logistics is the biggest challenge for the firm’s expansions in India, in North America the most important hurdle is identifying construction contractors with the skills to build precision biotechnology plants.
For-hire plant capacity at the pilot and demonstration scales are a particular pain point for start-ups looking to develop fermentation-based chemical production routes, according to Jason Webber, principal at the venture capital firm Sustainable Conversion Ventures. Webber said there is a 5 million L shortfall in contract manufacturing capacity across North America.
Another recurring theme was the need for consensus on standards for the sustainability impact of biobased products. Most presenters with renewable fuels or chemicals to pitch rattled off the carbon intensity—a measure of net CO2 emissions—of their portfolios from memory. At a lunchtime panel, Southwest Airlines fuel-supply executive John Briere said that if anyone was thinking of starting a business, he’d recommend a consultancy specializing in product life cycle analysis.
This story was updated on Nov. 10, 2022, to correct the description of IFF. It is an independent company that acquired DuPont’s Nutrition & Biosciences business in 2021 via stock transaction. It is not a subsidiary of DuPont.