I have been working with entrepreneurs at the University of York for several years, and in that time I have seen a wide variety of ideas, from robot talking bins to community recycling hubs. I started my job mid-way through a busy term, and had to find out what support was available at the University to support students. I became aware of BioVale and sent several biotech start-ups or students looking for lab-based support their way. That’s how I got talking to Alice North, now the Head of BioVale, and we collaborated to deliver some training for the High Value Biorenewables Enterprise Fellows towards the end of 2021. Due to an internal restructure I was able to apply for a job at BioVale and was fortunate enough to be offered the job, which I started in July 2022. Since then I have been keen to understand what sorts of businesses are currently gaining traction in the bioeconomy sector.
Thinking back to said interview, I was asked the question “What do you understand about the term ‘the bioeconomy’?”. I had my definition ready to go; and offered what I had read online (‘economic activity involving the use of biotechnology and biomass in the production of goods, services, or energy’) – which seemed to go down well enough. ‘Working with anything that grows’ I added in haste. More nods, and we moved swiftly on. “What would previous colleagues say about you’. There was nothing on Wikipedia about that!
Now, five months in, I have a much better understanding of the sorts of entrepreneurs that we can support. Because the Bioeconomy isn’t a limiting factor – quite the opposite. Founders creating start-ups already have a host of challenges to face, and of course many don’t ever transition from a struggling start-up into something commercially sustainable. They do, however, learn something along the way which is often applied to the ‘next’ idea. For many, being environmentally sustainable, circular, or low carbon can be seen as an additional hurdle, or an easy dig that an investor can make in an otherwise good business plan. Bad press and attention grabbing opportunists create stories or cause unrest and polarise the issue of a greener economy, causing misinformation and entrenched opinions in pursuit of more clicks.
Last month I went to Wuppertal in Germany to see some of Europe’s most promising bio-based start-ups for a day of pitching to investors and representatives from biotech cluster organisations from all over Europe. It promised to be a good introduction to some of the movers and shakers in the industry, and a chance to see how other cluster organisations incubate and invest in biotech.
Two UK start-ups were there to pitch; Bindethics, who offer a sustainable, non toxic adhesive and Bio-Sep who have developed a process to convert the by-products of forestry and agriculture into high-value biochemicals.
After seeing around 20 pitches from companies working on oil spill cleanup, graphene batteries, alternative packaging and advancements in bioplastics, I was left feeling hugely positive about the solutions that the bioeconomy can provide to a whole range of problems. It can offer additional ways to be creative, highlight the potential to source raw materials long term, and allow the creation of products that chime with an increasingly conscious market.
The fact that the companies are reducing reliance on fossil fuel derived materials isn’t just lip service or for the sake of greenwashing – they’re helping popularise sustainable feedstocks at scale. These smaller companies rely on better connectivity, economies of scale and a more informed customer to make their products and services viable long term. And that’s something BioVale is getting behind and pushing in our region. I’m glad to be part of it and I’m looking forward to helping make the bioeconomy not just part of the conversation about entrepreneurship, but front and centre – because today’s entrepreneurs cannot afford to overlook how the future of good business is intertwined with using what we already have.
BioVale Enterprise Manager