Biotechnology: the third industrial revolution

UK industries need to be creative and innovative by embracing biotechnology in order to reduce costs and create a sustainable framework for development, the audience of the second annual BIO-WISE conference was told this week.

Biotechnology’s environmental benefits were detailed by Derek Osborn, from the BOC Foundation – a group that issues grants for environmental and sustainable technologies. He said innovative answers are needed to help society and industry operate in a sustainable way and that biotechnology is a winning solution from an economic, environmental and social perspective.

Commenting on the environmental dilemmas relevant to the 21st century, such as climate change, he pointed to innovative biotechnology methods that could help alleviate these problems. He described biotechnology as a “third industrial revolution” which could help rectify the consequences of the first and second industrial revolutions – for example waste management can be controlled through biotechnology, air emissions can also be treated through biotechnological methods. Osborn described biotechnology as an “excellent friend” to the environment, allowing “cleaner less damaging materials to help clean up old pollution where other technologies have damaged the environment”.

The conference emphasised the wide-ranging uses of biotechnology at the various stages of industry production and amongst the different types of industry, encouraging the spread of its use beyond the pharmaceutical field into other sectors. BIO-WISE is a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) funded organisation, set up in 1999 to improve the competitiveness of UK manufacturing industry through the use of biotechnology. Speakers at the conference told industry officials they not only need to be competitive on price but also in innovation and creativity to succeed in today’s globalised market.

“Biotechnology must be seen as an applicable technique to maintain the competitive advantage across all manufacturing sectors,” Digby Jones, CBI Director General told listeners. He called on companies to invest in research and development and welcomed the tax incentive in last week’s Budget (see related story) which allows tax rebates on research investments, which he said will help industry to prosper and grow through the use of biotechnology.

Lord Sainsbury, the Minister for Science and Innovation, described biotechnology as a pervasive and disruptive technology. “Pervasive in the sheer number of industries it can influence and disruptive in the effect it can have on these – it’s going to change the way we design things, the way we diagnose illnesses, it will change many industrial processes,” he predicted. He highlighted the range of industrial applications where biotechnology can be used and the variety of stages of production it can be used at, for example at raw material production, the clean up of waste or the remediation of contaminated land.

Five industrial projects were given a share of £1 million in DTI funding, as part of the BIO-WISE Demonstrator Competition, for their plans to integrate biotechnology into their given industries. The award winners exemplified the diverse way biotechnology can be incorporated in a cost effective and ‘environmentally-friendly’ manner. Amongst the recipients were Thomas Chadwick & Sons, a textile company, that will demonstrate how micro-organisms can feed off organic waste from the textile industry, and Microscience Technology Ltd who will evaluate a monitoring test kit to detect harmful bacteria such as e-coli and salmonella in sewage sludge.

“There are many applications of biotechnology which offer great potential but haven’t yet been used at a full industrial scale, this competition plays a central role in getting exciting unique solutions taken up in real industrial environments,” said Lord Sainsbury.

The financial support from BIO-WISE is complemented by the advisory service it provides for those interested in using biotechnology. The Science Minister pointed out that the Government is committed to unhindered innovation in developing biotechnology noting the hard line taken with protestors over the Huntingdon Life Sciences experiments, a statement which received angry heckling from some audience members.

BIO-WISE claims that since its 1999 launch £100million has been saved through biotechnology and two thirds of these savers have received advice from BIO-WISE.

Story by Sorcha Clifford

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