A Year-End Reflection: How My Biotech is Like an Airplane.
My company, KnipBio, uses biotechnology tools to create a novel and sustainable single cell protein for aquaculture. The reality is, there is so much more to this and we are in the middle of an amazing adventure. We are using tools that didn’t exist 30 years ago to create products that didn't exist 20 years ago to meet the needs of an industry that barely existed 50 years ago – all to a prepare for a world like no other in history that is headed our way in the next 15-25 years. When someone asks me to describe how that feels I say, ‘It’s like learning to fly a plane at 400 mph while simultaneously figuring out how to build it.’ KnipBio is not like a lot of businesses where there’s a clear path to success- if you do A, then B, and then C and D, you’re going to get X.
We’re pioneering new technology to meet new challenges for an industry that is itself new, expanding at a phenomenal pace, and reinventing itself every few years. And most importantly, what KnipBio is doing matters for the future of humankind. Since I arrived on this planet a few decades ago, the world’s population has almost doubled to 7.6 billion people. It is likely to grow to 10 billion before I finally take my leave. Even though more than a third of humanity lives in poverty today, we are already bumping up against or crashing through many of Earth’s finite resources like fresh water and arable land. If we want to create a better way of life for more people we will need to figure a lot out- very quickly- and one of the key things we need to figure out is how to produce enough food.
We can no longer look to the drivers of increased global food production in the past like the Green Revolution and use of fertilizers to solve tomorrow's problems. But there is one area where food production has an opportunity to grow exponentially - the sea. Enter, the so-called “Blue Revolution”. Oceans cover 70% of Earth’s surface and today their potential is virtually untapped. In contrast to agriculture, which has developed, adapted, and improved for more than 12,000 years, the technology we use for getting food from the ocean has until recently been that of hunter-gatherers. That is, we are basically cave-men when it comes to the ocean!
Of course this has to change, and it is already happening. Traditional wild fisheries are already exploited at or beyond sustainable levels and there is no feasible way for them to feed future population growth. Fortunately, there’s a solution: aquaculture or farming the oceans. Aquaculture is new, tracing its modern roots to less than 50 years ago, but today the worldwide aquaculture industry produces more protein than beef and will soon surpass pork and chicken as the most important source of animal protein in human diets.
There’s a good reason for this. Due to their cold-blooded physiology (they don’t need to heat their bodies) and buoyancy in water (they don’t have to carry around their weight) fish are incredibly efficient when it comes to converting feed into edible protein. In some species, a pound of feed produces more than a pound of table-ready protein! And, unlike “cow”, “pig” or “chicken”, aquaculture is not reliant on a single species with multiple breeds, but a wide range of almost 600 different species of finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, and seaweeds. Moreover, fish are generally the healthiest source of animal protein around, lowering cardiac disease, reducing obesity, and improving brain function.
There’s a reason to be optimistic about the future aquaculture. Scientists at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis say the aquaculture industry has the ability to meet all of mankind’s food needs using less than 2% of the oceans. To make this a reality, however, aquaculture needs new sources of feed, particularly for popular tasty carnivorous species like salmon, trout, and shrimp. The current protein sources used in aquaculture are either already exploited at unsustainable levels (i.e. fishmeal), or lower quality (i.e. soybean meal).
That’s where alternative protein companies like KnipBio can help. Using microbes, algae, flies, and other unlikely sources, we are developing novel feeds for aquaculture that will allow the industry to achieve its potential without competing with human food sources. Industry winners will share a market for aquafeeds that is estimated to be worth $40 billion in new growth alone. But beyond financial incentives, being part of a solution to provide food security for mankind is a compelling motivation for creating sustainable feed. To achieve this will require collaboration across the alternative protein space wherever possible, and this spirit of cooperation will result in a collectively stronger industry.
So now that the pieces of our “plane” are coming together, the passengers- the aquaculture industry and the seafood consumers they serve across the globe- are anxious for the KnipBio to get airborne. The runway- our biotech science and manufacturing process- is strong, straight, and getting smoother every day. The control tower- the regulatory environment- is telling us we will soon have permission for takeoff. And our crew- the scientists and engineers at KnipBio- are working feverishly to finish building the wings and trimming the ailerons, even as we are picking up speed down headed down the runway. I’m convinced we will achieve liftoff soon. It might be a bumpy ride- anything this big always is- but I am confident the trip will be worth it.