Is Biology Making Gains in EPA Green Chemistry Challenge?

Recent biotech winners include Solugen, Modern Meadow, and Provivi. But analysis of the program's 27-year history serves as a reminder that biology-based technology isn't the only sustainable technology around.
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Synthetic biologists might want to delay plans to work on their speechwriting skills.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doles out awards each year as part of its Green Chemistry Challenge. It's not quite a challenge per se, but rather a way to recognize and encourage the development of sustainable technologies. Past awards include novel vanadium redox flow batteries, solid-phase synthesis of antiviral ingredients, and making peptides found in spider venom via fermentation.

Since the challenge's inception in 1996, the EPA has singled out only 139 technologies from over 1,800 nominations. It's an exclusive club.

Although it might be easy to assume biology-based technologies are a slam dunk to dominate a green chemistry challenge, that hasn't been the case.

  • Using the broadest definition of "biology-based," technologies utilizing biological inputs (such as wood waste) or processes (such as fermentation) have won 48 of 139 awards.
  • Technologies utilizing a narrower definition of biotechnology or synthetic biology have won 35 of 139 awards.

Of the 35 winners in biotechnology, 20 (57%) have been awarded since 2009, or the halfway point of the Green Chemistry Challenge's existence to date. Similarly, seven (20%) winners have stepped to the podium since 2019, but that period encompasses roughly an equivalent share (18%) of the program's history. These numbers suggest biotechnology isn't more likely to win an award today than at any other time since 1996.

In fact, there's a negative correlation to biotech companies winning an EPA Green Chemistry Challenge Award and business performance.

  • 90% (9/10) of biotechnology companies that won an award from 2005 through 2017 are now closed, bankrupt, or had worse operating margins in the first half of 2023 compared to the year-ago period. These include Metabolix (Yield10 Biosciences), Codexis (three times), LS9, BioAmber, Amyris, Solazyme (TerraVia), Algenol, LanzaTech, and Verdezyne.
  • Award recipients from 2019 to 2023 (there were no awards in 2018) include Kalion, Vestaron, Genomatica, Provivi, Modern Meadow, and Solugen.

There are a few plausible explanations.

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It's Not Easy Being Green Chemistry

Why are biotech companies struggling to win EPA Green Chemistry Challenge Awards? Why are the winners overwhelmingly likely to struggle?

First, companies and academics must apply or be nominated to be considered. This could bias the nominations, and therefore the awards, to groups with the most resources. It's no mistake the largest companies in drug development, chemical manufacturing, and food processing earn a healthy share of the awards. For example, Merck won an EPA Green Chemistry Challenge Award in five consecutive years spanning 2017 to 2022 (there were no awards in 2018).

Second, biotechnology isn't the only way to improve existing manufacturing processes. The Clorox Company won the 2023 EPA Green Chemistry Challenge Award for its Clorox EcoClean Disinfecting Cleaner, which utilizes between 5x and 18x less lactic acid as its active ingredient due to a formulation tweak. Lactic acid is one of the most voluminous industrial biotech ingredients produced globally, but a "simple" formulation change delivered breakthrough results for the common ingredient.

Similarly, biomass can be converted into useful chemicals without using fermentation or biocatalysis. Past winners include those using thermocatalytic (heat and pressure) or chemical conversion processes to isolate valuable compounds from agricultural and wood wastes.

Avoiding the inefficiencies of fermentation is one of the core advantages of Solugen's cell-free manufacturing platform, which helped it score an award in 2023. The Bioforge platform utilizes gold nanoparticles and enzymes instead of living cells to exhibit more control over reaction conditions.

Third, the EPA Green Chemistry Challenge doesn't take economics into account. A manufacturing process might reduce chemical waste, the number of process steps, and emissions compared to competing processes, but that doesn't always translate to an economical process.

When Merck or Amgen win recognition for a significantly more efficient synthesis of an active pharmaceutical ingredient, they can quantify exactly how much money will be saved. When Amyris won an award for microbial-produced farnesane, the market reality for renewable fuels wasn't considered.

If you want to change that, then apply for the 2024 Green Chemistry Challenge by December 8, 2023.

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