5 Minutes With… Shara Ticku from C16 Biosciences
“Indonesia and Malaysia are the major producers of palm oil in the world. Together they produce around 85% of the world’s palm oil supply.”
Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil in the world. Most experts agree that the palm oil market is valued at $60-plus billion. The oil is found in some version in around 50% of products on supermarket shelves, including bread, lipstick, lotions, soap and cookies. It’s really omnipresent and global demand is growing for it. However, palm oil is controversial because of its production. To produce palm oil, the fruit is collected from the trees, which can live an average of 28 to 30 years. However, once the trees grow too high, making it difficult to reach the fruit, they are cut down to make room for new trees – which contributes to deforestation of the rainforest. This is part of the problem, which is common for most mono-culture agriculture.
The unique issue with palm oil is that the tree from which the oil is harvested, elaies guneisis, can only grow within 5-10 degrees of the equator. Most of the land around the equator is tropical rainforest, full of trees and carbon-rich peatland, and home to thousands of animal species. In order to meet growing demand for palm oil over the last few decades, palm plantations have been slashing and burning these rainforests in order to clear the land for palm oil plantations. Tropical rainforest deforestation, largely driven by palm oil, drives 10% of greenhouse gas emissions each year.
However, a US-based biotechnology firm C16 Biosciences may have found a solution to this issue. It makes a bio-based palm oil via fermentation and describes its product as fully traceable and sustainable.
Here, Bio Market Insight’s Liz Gyekye catches up with Shara Ticku, CEO and co-founder of C16 Biosciences.
Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind C16 Biosciences?
Shara Ticku (ST): My co-founders David Heller, Harry McNamara, and I started the company two years ago. The three of us met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in 2016. The Media Lab is great at bringing people from interdisciplinary backgrounds to work on step-change science. That was us – we came from a variety of backgrounds, including areas of synthetic biology, bioengineering and healthcare.
During the year that we met, a lot of innovations were coming out in the market. For example, biotechnology company Impossible Foods had launched its first plant-based burger at Momofuku Nishi in New York just three or four months before I first met my co-founders. We were all really excited about Impossible Foods’ milestone and its ability to bring a synthetic biology-based product to market. The company did it in such a direct way that its product landed on consumers with great fanfare, and we knew this would set the stage for much broader market comfort with biotech-based production of consumer products.
We started thinking about palm oil as a problem because Harry and I had both seen the destruction caused by the palm oil industry first-hand, in Costa Rica and Singapore, respectively.
I didn’t understand how we could justify the destruction of rainforest, biodiversity, and our planet all just to make a vegetable oil. We knew that agriculture had not been able to solve this in the past, but had a strong hypothesis that microbiology could. We had $1000 from MIT and used that money to do our first sets of experiments and made our first bit of bio-based palm oil, maybe a few millilitres. From there, we never looked back.
LG: What were you doing before this job?
ST: I worked in the healthcare space, specifically on increasing access to medicine. Healthcare was an interesting market to work on because I was working on the market failures within this space. During my work at the Clinton Health Access Initiative, I worked on one market failure: the drug development model and the impacts that has on drug pricing and access worldwide, particularly in developing markets. I got to work with big pharma on interesting incentive structures to increase access to basic medicines at affordable prices in developing countries and then see that through to delivery of those medicines at health clinics.
I similarly view palm oil as a market failure. People have known for many years about the destruction it causes. They see it, feel it and are reminded of it constantly. More than 250 companies and 9 countries have made public commitments to stop using “conflict” palm oil, but they’ve failed because they have no viable alternative.
My work in global health taught me how to approach market failures from multiple levers. An important element of that, which we use in our approach at C16 Bio, is that you have to meet people where they are. Brands do not want to sacrifice cost or performance, so we should not have to ask them to. We aim to deliver a product that can compete on performance, cost, and be sustainable.
LG: How do you make your product?
ST: We use yeast fermentation and we produce the oil intracelluarly. Essentially, it’s like the traditional fermentation process that we have been using to make food for centuries.
LG: What’s a typical day like for you?
ST: There is not really a typical day. On any given day we are working on a host of different experiments. This could include running experiments in shake flasks or bioreactor, extracting the oil, fractionating oils and putting it into finished products to see how it performs.
We also spend a lot of time talking to potential customers. We want to ensure we are building products that customers want to use. So, we talk to brands of different forms and sizes to understand things like what functionality palm oil derivatives drive in detergents versus facial creams versus chocolate coatings, for example.
LG: What challenges have you faced in growing the company?
ST: Palm oil is used in so many industries. It could be used in anything from soaps and shampoos to lipsticks and biofuels. So, many people want a sustainable alternative to this. The challenge is to produce and supply our product in a way that enables all of these very different sectors to choose sustainable, bio-based palm oil and to sell responsible, sustainable products like their customers demand. This could be more challenging than building and scaling the technology itself.
LG: What advice would you give to somebody starting out in this space?
ST: Always think about the most important experiments that you can run today. You should start with the hardest experiment and run that experiment first. Sometimes its easy to run the experiments that validate our thinking, but its really important to ask the hard questions first. You need to ask questions such as “What will the challenges be at scale?” and “What will people pay for the product?” It will help you build the business in the most successful way.
LG: What’s the next step?
ST: We are continuing to optimise our process and gearing up to put products on shelves. We are starting out in the personal care space and we are in discussion with a handful of brands that are interested in using our bio-based palm oil derivatives in their formulations. We want to get there as fast as we can to get the products on the market.
LG: What’s your sustainable favourite product?
ST: My reusable water bottle. It allows me to drink plenty of water all day and not have to use single-use disposable materials. Sustainability doesn’t always have to be high-tech!