SME of the Month - Alkol Biotech
Meet the #SMEoftheMonth, Alkol Biotech - founded three years ago, the UK based SME aims to develop new plant varieties to meet the current needs of the bio-based markets.
Alkol Biotech, based in the UK, was founded three years ago and aims at developing new plant varieties to meet the current needs of the bio-based markets. In specific, the SME is working on varieties that are able to grow in colder and drier climates offering better resistance to pests and diseases and higher productivities. In 2018, the company has signed a letter of intent for the sourcing of up to 500 thousand tonnes of non-woody lignocellulosic biomass to what would be Europe’s largest biorefinery. Read more about Alkol Biotech in our interview with CEO and Founder, Alvaro Costa.
How did Alkol Biotech start out?
Alkol Biotech was born out of the realisation that the biomarkets are in desperate need of proper feedstocks. Too much effort has been put into trying to transform clearly unsuitable feedstocks into a range of chemicals: biorefineries which often do not scale, end up producing unwanted byproducts, need overly expensive enzymes, etc. In our understanding, all those problems could be averted if, instead, more suitable feedstocks were chosen. In this sense, we look for crops and improve them to provide biofuels, oils, chemicals, plastic and more.
How would you describe your Unique Selling Point compared to other companies also combining agricultural and industrial biotechnology?
The idea of improving crops is anything but new. Corn actually came from teosinte, which is less than 1/10th the size and took over 5 thousand years of inbreeding to become corn. Carrots were originally purple. The GMO market today is an established one. And so forth. However, all the crop improvement efforts today are mainly focused on the food market. We stay away from it, focusing only on the bio-markets (plastic, oils, biofuels, and others).
Can you give a bit more details about the benefits of your sustainable feedstock?
We have developed what today is Europe´s only truly autochthonous sugarcane variety, and we called it EUnergyCane. It is resistant to cold and currently grows in our fields in Spain. It was developed from a naturally occurring sugarcane variety that we identified in the south of Spain. Being able to grow in cold conditions and being already here in European territory allows cellulosic ethanol producers to have it in a matter of days and without taxes, phytosanitary procedures, etc. as it happens with varieties from Brazil, India, etc. This is one of the reasons why we signed a LOI with the Bioforever consortium to provide it with up to 500 thousand tons a year of EUnergycane for its incoming biorefinery.
You are involved in the EUnergyCane project. What is the purpose of this procject and how is Alkol Biotech involved?
Besides being the name of our sugarcane variety, EUnergycane is the name of a consortium we created with top institutions such as University of Liverpool, Edinburgh, Texas A&M, etc. The idea is to completely sequence EUnergyCane in order to find markers to make it even more cold resistant and the “philosopher´s stone” of sugarcane which makes it into the world´s best photosynthesizer. Also, considering that sugarcane has never been completely sequenced, this would by itself be a major achievement.
What has been your process to raise enough capital and reach the market?
We have always run out of own funds and this has proven to be probably the best. In fact, every time we did try to raise capital, the feedback we got from venture capitalists and government institutions was so off the charts in terms of understanding on what our model is, that at the end we would prefer just to go solo.That being said, the hardest part for any startup is not really obtaining funds, but people. In this sense, we have been extremely lucky to have in our ranks names such as Bruno Sobral (son of world famous Manuel Sobral who first sequenced sugarcane), Patrice Saintherant (former International Director of Thereos), etc.
As a SME active in agricultural biotechnology, what is your opinion on the low level of political acceptance on GM techniques in Europe?
We in Europe have historically been great at inventing things and awful at selling them. Take the Lumiére brothers: they invented the movie projector, but did not sell it as they saw it as a “fad”. In this sense, GMO technology is here to stay, and at the end we will be overcome by USA and China and, as usual, end up asking ourselves how did that happen. So, nothing new here, unfortunately.
Did the unfavourable and restrictive EU legislation on GMOs have an impact on the development of your business? If so, how did you cope with it?
The fact that CRISPR was basically outlawed for us was a major blow as we were counting on using that technology in order to improve EUnergycane and other crops. However, since we have strong ties with Brazil and USA where they don´t have those limitations, we will just develop our research there and sell our sugarcane variety in countries with a good soil such as Ukraine.
What are your aspirations for 2019 and beyond?
We are looking to grow our sugarcane in Ukraine. We were impressed with the quality of its soil and we think it could grow quite well. Crazy because sugarcane is a “tropical” crop? Well, so is corn, and has been growing there ever since Nikita Khrushchev brought it.
What advice would you offer to young entrepreneurs that are still in the development phase and seeking to build a sustainable opportunity in plant biotechnology?
Do not give up - this market takes time. However, when even the Rockefellers who basically invented the oil industry have officially left it, it is quite clear we are in front of a revolution, and being part of it is definitely worth it.