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Why Biology is More than Just the Lab for Nelson Barton

March 20, 2024 A biologist working on synthetic biology process like UNC Cleantech Summit speaker, Nelson Barton at Genomatica.

As an undergrad at Berkeley in the 80s, Barton’s chosen field of molecular biology was just developing, but he knew already that its potential was endless.  He dreamed of a career where he could “do something that would have an impact” and after graduating, Barton set out to do just that.  Joining one of the first companies studying the enzymes produced by microorganisms, Barton used molecular biology to tackle major issues in sustainability, from cleaner paper processes to developing generation one ethanol.  This passion for sustainability is in part what led him to Genomatica, a biotechnology company disrupting the status quo by using plants to produce important chemical compounds.

When Barton joined Genomatica (more commonly known as Geno) as it’s Head of Research and Development in 2015, it wasn’t just the cutting edge scientific work that drew him in, it was the company’s founding principles: “Geno’s philosophy was always about developing […] processes to make the world a better place.”  In a world where most products are manufactured with components derived from petroleum, Geno’s founders envisioned something different: a manufacturing system that ran off of naturally produced, sustainable inputs.

At the core of this vision is an unlikely hero: bacteria. Geno is part of the emerging field of synthetic biology, using modified microorganisms to ferment plant sugars into the compounds found in many common household products.  The result is a final product that looks the same, but has a fraction of the carbon footprint.  Geno estimates that their inputs can cut up to 90% of the carbon footprint of a given product, all while eliminating the harmful processing of chemicals.

The reach of this innovation is far wider than most people may realize, Barton says.  In a survey conducted by the company, Geno found that few consumers were aware of how widespread fossil fuels are in the products they consume.  From clothing to skincare products to household staples like aspirin, petroleum products permeate most parts of our lives, but Geno is ready to change that.  Since the company’s founding, they have been able to produce sustainable bio-based nylon, glycol, and butanediol, scoring them partnerships with big brand names like Lululemon and L’Oreal.

Brand partnerships like this weren’t part of Geno’s plan when they began, Barton notes.  Rather, the company hoped that their innovation would appeal to big petroleum companies, giving them a sustainable alternative to offer their clients. However, they quickly realized that with hundreds of millions invested in the infrastructure to produce petroleum, most petrochemical companies weren’t keen to change directions.  Brand owners became their unlikely pairing, driven in part by a consumer base that was increasingly demanding sustainable sourcing in their products.  The power of the consumer in product sourcing is great– even petrochemical companies have been forced to change their tune in the face of growing customer outcry.

Geno is leading the way in that change, not only pioneering the production of sustainable compounds, but modeling transparency and collaboration for the entire field.  The company traces all their materials to sustainable, ethical sources, making human rights and the welfare of the communities they manufacture in a priority right alongside sustainability.  As they disrupt our fossil-fuel reliant industries, they’re working to build stable, resilient supply chains that will stand the test of time.

Now that Geno has created a sustainable, cost-competitive alternative to petroleum products, the next step is to scale their model. “Real, significant impact needs facilities of a size that can meet that,” Barton says, and Geno is up for the challenge.  They’re working continuously to increase product capacity while decreasing their carbon footprint, and have begun to license their technology to businesses to set that change into motion.  In partnership with Cargill and Helm, Geno’s technology is being implemented in a $300 million facility called Qore, and their sustainable nylon has already hit the shelves as part of a line of clothing released by Lululemon.

Geno’s vision for a more sustainable future doesn’t stop there, though.  With Barton at the lead, the company is already looking ahead, searching for ways to turn their revolutionary technology into a circular supply chain.  The goal, Barton says, is to develop a process that dovetails into current facilities, so that no new construction would be needed.  They hope to convert any waste back into a feedstock that will fuel the next generation of products, ensuring a process that is low-cost and low-emission.

Genomatica’s production has already made waves in a range of industries, and that impact will only grow as the company does.  With a line of revolutionary products and a team of people like Barton who are committed and passionate about developing a better future, Geno promises to be a key player in creating a cleaner, more sustainable world.

This article was written by Annelise Bowers, a UNC Cleantech Corner Initiative intern.

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