Nature Co-Design: Let’s break it down

Requested by popular demand, our Deep Tech Lead here at Hello Tomorrow, Nicolas Goeldel, hosted a live Insights and Q&A session last month where we dove deep into our latest report co-authored with the BCG, ‘Nature Co-Design: A Revolution in the Making.’
He covered the main takeaways from the report and answered questions from the audience about this new industrial paradigm that’s set to profoundly change our relationship with nature. You can find the replay below.

Didn’t get to attend or don’t have time to watch the whole replay? No problem, check out this handy summary of what was covered!

How did it come about that we wrote this report?

A quick intro on us, in case you’re new here. Hello Tomorrow is all about building a collaborative deep tech ecosystem, bringing together key stakeholders like investors, corporates and deep tech startups. Our vast network in turn allows us to analyse trends and gain insight into the deep tech innovation landscape.

Recently, we have been seeing more and more startups entering our network that originate in the area of ‘Nature Co-Design’, and the more we saw, the more firmly we were convinced of its unparalleled potential as a concept. Together with BCG we wanted to share this with you.

“I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.” Steve Jobs, 2011.

The man needs no introduction. While this quote may underplay the scale of the revolution set to unfold in the coming years, it perfectly sums up the general direction we are headed. We will change the innovation equation from bits only, to bits and atoms, and this is a revolutionary shift that we call ‘Nature Co-Design’.

Tell me more…What is it and what does it mean?

Nature Co-Design is where biology, material science and nanotechnology meet, leveraging nature’s design principles and manufacturing capabilities. Not only does this represent a huge business opportunity, it offers us a chance as a society to transform and build a sustainable future.

A new era of production

This is how our current economy works, still based upon the principles of the first and second industrial revolutions. A process of extracting fossil fuels, burning them to generate the energy to produce food, new materials & refined chemicals, emitting large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and wasting a lot of energy in the form of heat.

With the principles of Nature Co-Design, we enter a regenerative economy. We use CO2 (or sugar) as feedstock for microbes, which are engineered to produce for us: food, new materials and refined chemicals.

Why is this so important?

Because of the context we are in. Humans have become the single biggest driver of planetary change impacting the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. We are stressing our planet beyond its limits, and here are some very cold, hard numbers to explain exactly what that means:

CO2 particles in the atmosphere have increased by nearly 50% since pre-industrial times.Humans are conducting the 6th mass extinction of wildlife on Earth. We have about 15 large-scale Earth systems that are essential for our life on this planet, 9 of which are at risk of tipping over. The average global temperature has risen by 1.2°C since pre-industrial times, and it’s still rising.

We need to return to a system whereby humanity is able to thrive in harmony with our planet. The good news? Nature Co-Design offers us an opportunity to do that, in 3 main ways:
From waste to resource: We will create a universal material ecosystem, by re- and up-cycling all materials. The waste of one process will become the resource for another.
Nature as a manufacturing platform: Yes, we will still use the resources of our planet. But we will partner with nature, not simply use its output.
Energy-efficient production: Evolution has rendered most biosynthesis highly energy-efficient compared to current industrial practices.

How exactly does it work, and will it impact my industry? 

Yes. According to our research, 40% of the global GDP will be impacted by Nature Co-Design. Value-chains will be impacted along four different dimensions, detailed below with examples.

1) Enlarging the option space: Shifting value pools and enabling new value creation.
Currently, in order to feed the Earth’s 8 billion people, we rely on nitrogen fertilizer to boost crop growth. Without this, scientists estimate that around 4 billion people would starve. A key element in producing this nitrogen fertilizer is the Haber-Bosch synthesis, a century-old chemical process that accounts for about 1-2% of global energy consumption. As well as this, around 50% of the nitrogen fertilizer is not even absorbed by the plants, it runs off and contributes to environmental pollution. Enter Nature Co-Design.

Joyn Bio is a company that is engineering microbes in such a way that they pre-digest nitrogen for the plants, making it more accessible for the plant and reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer.

2) Creating new value nets: Going from value-chains to value nets, as waste becomes a resource for other processes.
Let’s look at algae. Yes, algae. Over millions of years, algae has been optimized through evolution to trap light and filter out UVA and UVB, a process that is very useful for us humans when it comes to manufacturing products such as sunscreen or solar panels.

Swedish Algae Factory is a startup that is growing algae and harvesting their silica shells for use in exactly this kind of manufacturing process. The even better part? All you need in order to grow algae is water, minerals… and CO2. This is an example of a value net: the waste product of one value chain (or in our current case, a lot of value chains), becomes a resource for another process.

3) Redefining the economics: The intrinsic need for scaling is replaced by the need for smart design.
The capital expenditures of manufacturing processes as we know them today are traditionally things like machinery or industrial plants. With Nature Co-Design, this value comes from organisms, and the DNA that encodes their features. Similarly, the intrinsic ‘bigger the better’ system that underlines current industrial practices is not present in Nature Co-Design. It instead behaves more like an S curve, where beyond a certain point in scale there will be no further improvement. Optimum productivity is not achieved through scale.

4) Pushing scientific frontiers: Expanding R&D capacities to turn scientific knowledge into new products and services.
The chemical space is incredibly vast, with trillions upon trillions of small molecules yet to be discovered that could offer unimaginable opportunity for humanity in the form of Nature Co-Design. Exploring this space would take humanity hundreds or thousands of years. What if we could rely on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics to do this for us?

Let us introduce to you another startup in our community, Kebotix, who have developed an AI and robotics enabled self-driven lab, whereby robotics are able to synthesise many different small molecules in an automated way.

What are the implications of this new paradigm on society at large?

There are 3 main things to consider.

  • Engineering biology at scale like this undoubtedly brings with it a huge degree of uncertainty. How can we make sure that this technology is only used in a way that will benefit humanity? As is the case with all new technologies, we need a conversation around ethical and regulatory frameworks.
  • We also need to consider that we will see a global shift. Countries that are rich in raw materials will start to lose their geostrategic advantage to countries that are rich in biological diversity.
  • In Nature Co-Design, waste and resources are intrinsically linked, meaning that supply chains become much more local, and not as reliant on import and export.

To conclude in the words of Al Gore, 2020:

“We believe that we’re in the early stages of a sustainability revolution, one that will be larger than the industrial revolution with the speed of the digital revolution. We believe it’s the biggest investing opportunity in the history of the world, and the biggest business opportunity in the history of the world.”

If you would like to ask any questions, continue the discussion, or explore how Hello Tomorrow can boost your innovation strategy, do not hesitate to send an email to Nicolas Goeldel who will be more than happy to discuss with you.

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