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Episode 5: Biomanufacturing for Tomorrow

23 September, 2021

We stand on the cusp of a bioindustrial revolution, in which the power of nature will be harnessed to unlock progress in medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, and more. FabricNano and Allozymes are technology companies with the ambitious mission to power the bioindustrial revolution. 

FabricNano aims to create a more sustainable future by replacing petrochemical products and plastics with biomanufactured alternatives. Allozymes aims to upend chemical manufacturing by accelerating the sustainable manufacturing of natural products.

In this episode, we speak with Grant Aarons, co-founder and CEO of FabricNano, and Peyman Salehian, co-founder and CEO of Allozymes. They join host and Entrepreneur First’s co-founder Alice Bentinck to talk about the state of biomanufacturing and how their companies are making them more sustainable in the future.

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Show notes

Grant and Peyman’s motivation to start companies: Grant was motivated to drop out of his PhD as it was too slow-moving [1:40]. EF gave him an opportunity to jump into founding a company 100%, yet still have the backing of an institutional framework, and the community which he would have wanted in another career [2:50]. Peyman was a second-time founder when he joined EF. He saw entrepreneurship as something in his blood [3:10], and with each company he founded, he was ready to go for something much bigger. 

Many founders are surprised by how much ideas change and develop when they join EF: Grant thought that based on his skill set on big data and statistical problems, he would have started a financial company [4:50] At EF, he was surprised to learn that he didn’t have to rely on what he worked on in the past and the exact area of domain expertise to found a company. Instead, there were a lot of opportunities to learn things and build things from scratch that no one would’ve expected.

Biotechnology is the beginning of the next Industrial Revolution: Back in the 2000s, Peyman would’ve probably started an IT company. Now, with a lot of the focus on biotechnology, Peyman believed that anyone who has a sense of what is to come will be interested in it [8:30]. The way he saw enzymes as a key part of the cell was akin to the battery of the car and he was incredibly excited by how they could take a big piece of this technology and impact its adoption. 

“Ideas are cheap, but making them commercial is difficult.”: For Peyman, raising money in Singapore was tough as less than 10 investors understood what they were building [10:50]. However, their over-preparedness meant that they already had 4 term sheets within a month of fundraising and the luxury of choosing their investors. Grant had a different experience 2 years earlier in 2019 [12:20]. He had to take 100 investor calls and meetings, and he made it operate like a customer development funnel. They would not have ended up with the number of term sheets they had if they only optimised towards a small number of investors. Getting Emma Watson and the collection of investors she sometimes invests with came from him sending out a message to his network to find a more diverse group of investors that believed in his vision to change and shape the world [15:30].

Sustainability is no longer an option, but a choice we need to pick to continue living in this world: Peyman and his team identified that the process of extraction for natural products was shockingly unsustainable [16:50] – a customer would have to buy 10 tonnes of tomato skins to extract 3kg for an ingredient used in cosmetics manufacturing. This is equivalent to covering Singapore in tomatoes. Allozyme’s technology is able to engineer that enzyme manufacturing process without using a single tomato and hence preventing such a problem from existing in the first place. 

Biology needs to work in a manner that is fully amenable to engineering, but the current technology stack is not there yet: FabricNano detected a hair on fire problem in the process of biodiesel production, where 10% of biodiesel was waste glycerin and it was being incinerated. A lot of these petroleum-based products are used in plastics and face cream, and what FabricNano aims to do is to supplant existing products in the market that are based on petroleum. 

Toughest challenges a founder can expect to face: One of the hardest parts of being a founder for Grant was setting the company’s vision and sticking to it [21:30]. As a founder, ability to execute mattered the most, more so than the technical ability of the founders. Running and building a company is a hard slog and a journey, where the founders stay forced on their vision and not let the world corrupt it. For Peyman, being mentally prepared to handle criticism and failure was an important part of being an entrepreneur [23:30]. Similar to Grant, he had to deal with lots of questions on target industry and markets, but he stayed his course. he  He also felt extra pressure when his company grew faster than he expected and planned for, and advises founders to stay mentally and physically prepared.

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