Pow.bio, a Berkeley-based startup promising to change the economics of precision fermentation by enabling a continuous process, has raised a $9.5 million series A round led by Re:Food and Thia Ventures.
The round—which was supported by Hitachi Ventures with participation from Bee Partners, Possible Ventures, X factor, iSelect, Climate Capital, Vectors, Better Ventures, and Cantos—will enable Pow.bio to expand operations at a demonstration plant in Alameda, California set to open next summer.
The site is engineered for the transition from gram-scale experimentation to the production of hundreds of kilos of finished products using a novel two-chamber fermentation system, showcasing the potential of Pow.bio’s platform but also serving as a blueprint for its commercial-scale deployment, CEO Shannon Hall told AgFunderNews.
“But our first goal is to build a demonstration platform at 1,000-liters for the high efficiency outputs that we’ve demonstrated at 30 liters and 300 liters.”
‘Capacity alone cannot fix the core problem of lowering unit costs’
The lack of available capacity for commercial scale precision fermentation is a well-documented problem, says Hall, who cofounded Pow.bio with microbiologist Dr. Ouwei Wang in 2019. “But the truth is that capacity alone cannot fix the core problem of lowering unit costs. Building more of the same large-scale bioreactors won’t solve this problem.
“The simple fact is that synthetic biology companies today are unable to manufacture products at a price that can displace unsustainable petrochemical or animal derived alternatives. Until we are able to produce biomaterials at or below cost parity to their commodity counterparts, only the most expensive biomade products will ever be commercially viable.
“The right target is economic viability, and hitting it requires technical advances in biomanufacturing.”
Enter Pow.bio, which is on a mission to change this equation by enabling precision fermentation companies to deploy a continuous, rather than a batch process. This is in turn integrated with AI-controlled software that accelerates process optimization and can drive autonomous operation.
By running a fermentation process more like an assembly line, says Hall, “We see multi-fold increases in productivity without contamination or drift.”
For Pow.bio’s partners with products already in the market, reducing manufacturing costs can have a huge impact on their bottom line, she claims. For partners “that need to hit a lower price point in order to even launch a new commodity product, Pow.bio’s platform might be the only way to do it.”
In the nascent animal-free dairy segment, where multiple startups are producing whey, casein and other proteins via precision fermentation, she said, “We don’t disclose our customers’ identities, but we’ve done a significant amount of work here and demonstrates 2x improvements in productivity.”
Continuous process cuts capex costs and increases productivity
So why is a continuous process better?
In a traditional batch precision fermentation process, says cofounder Ouwei Wang, microbes proliferate until they reach critical mass in a fermentation tank and are then triggered to start producing a target molecule via a change in the media. The batch is then completed, the ingredient is extracted, the tank is cleaned, and the whole process starts all over again.
“A batch process is slow and repetitive. Every time you set up, you need to sterilize everything, grow the cells, trigger them to produce the product, harvest it, and repeat this process over and over and over.”
In contrast, Pow.bio has found a way to maintain microbes in an ultra-productive state for weeks in a process it claims can cut capex costs and increase biomanufacturing capacity by orders of magnitude by combining continuous fermentation with advanced control methodology.
“We typically see a 5- to 10-fold increase in productivity [when using a continuous versus a batch process] for the same ingredient.”
By increasing productivity, he adds, you can also save on capex. “As you’re running a fundamentally more efficient system, you can reduce the facility footprint; you can use fewer tanks and smaller tanks – therefore driving down the capex and opex, and ultimately the costs of goods.”
According to Hall: “What we can do is help clients build a techno economic model for fine chemicals and food proteins where we can say, were you to deploy this type of continuous manufacturing for your product at scale, this is the kind of capital required to build a facility and here are the unit costs.
“Take a fine chemical where you need 10 kilotons per year. Using traditional batch fermentation, the capital expense for that could be $150-180 million with a unit cost per kilo of around $3.50. With the Pow.bio platform [smaller bioreactors operating on a continuous basis], you could produce the same amount of material for $40 million and get the unit cost down below $2.”
Addressing contamination and strain mutation
But if a continuous fermentation process is such a no brainer, why isn’t everyone using it?
Two main reasons, says Wang: contamination and strain mutation. In a continuous reactor, where there is media coming in and product coming out 24/7 and more human intervention, there’s a higher chance for contamination.
In a continuous process, meanwhile, over time, you can get mutations, he says, “whereas in a batch process, it’s a limited problem because we hit the reset button every few days.”
To overcome these challenges, Pow.bio has developed a dual-chamber system that separates the growth phase (where the microbes proliferate) from the production phase (where the microbes start producing the molecules of interest) in the bioreactor.
“In the growth reactor, we ensure there is no production of the product. In the production chamber, meanwhile, we shut off growth altogether by using nutrient limitation, so the cells lack essential building blocks to proliferate; they are in a zombified state, actively producing but not growing. And because of that, the contaminants can’t overtake the production phase. It’s not that we’re completely immune to contamination, but we are much more resilient; contaminants never cause our reactor to crash.”
As for avoiding genetic drift/strain mutation, he says: “Because we’re separating the growth and the production phase of the bioprocess, there is no selective pressure during the growth phase for the cells to mutate. And in the production chamber, the cells do not mutate because they cannot grow.”
But he adds: “We are not a hardware company; the innovations are in the process, not in the hardware.”
The business model
As for the business model, Pow.bio is a ‘fermentation as a service’ company, says Wang, who has thus far worked with bacteria and yeast and produced “high value organic acids such as mevalonolactone, food proteins and other ingredients.”
He explains: “We provide intelligent fermentation services to the biomanufacturing industry; we help other companies validate their strains, optimize their process and produce materials for regulatory and go to market testing, with the aim to manufacture for them with our continuous technology.”
Down the road, were a company to deploy a continuous process at scale, Pow.bio could license its tech or enter a joint venture, says Hall. “It really depends on what the vision is for the partner company in terms of ownership of manufacturing.”
In the meantime, Pow.bio is already generating revenue, says Wang. “People come to us for different reasons. Sometimes they want to know which strain is the best for their ingredient. Sometimes they say, ‘In our current process we make this ingredient with a productivity of X, a titer of Y and a yield of Z. Can you make it better?’ Other people just come to us and say, ‘I need a kilo of product X, can you make it for us?’”
According to Hall: “Because a much smaller system [operating continuously] can build a lot of material, we’re able to produce prototype products much more quickly. Further, because of the nature of our continuous system, it’s exceptionally data-rich and you can see opportunities to immediately improve even super well-designed strains in terms of productivity.”