Your skincare routine might need an upgrade – but not because you are getting older. Active ingredients used in cosmetics may be good for your skin but not for the planet. Many of them are sourced from rare plants or unsuspecting animals. For example, squalene, a common ingredient in creams and serums, is harvested from shark livers. That presents a problem – and not just for endangered species, but for supply chain security, controlling prices, and ensuring the consistent quality of those ingredients.

Skincare is a 100-billion-dollar market. No wonder the emerging biotechnology companies are moving into this sector. What they are bringing to the table is cleaner and greener alternatives to the products we already use. Instead of being harvested from wild plants, the key ingredients used in cosmetics can be produced from cultivated crops, like sugarcane, using precision fermentation. This technology is capable of manufacturing highly pure enzymes, vitamins, fragrances, natural pigments, and active molecules in a controlled environment at a fraction of the cost.

Bio-based skincare products are already on the market. Biossance, which is owned by Amyris
AMRS
(Nasdaq: AMRS), is the fastest growing brand at Sephora that features squalene as its main ingredient. Amyris has replaced shark-derived squalene with their precision fermentation product that now accounts for 60% of the global market for the chemical. Another example of biotech entering skincare is a company called Mother Dirt, started by an MIT scientist in 2015. Their product line contains a combination of smart ingredients and probiotics designed to work together to balance the microbiome of the skin, with science to back it. Its founder, Jasmina Aganovic, has since started another company called Arcaea that aims to tap into the entire tree of life to develop previously inaccessible ingredients.

“Biotechnology enables us to expand the ingredient palette of the beauty industry to molecules in all parts of the tree of life, ethically and sustainably,” said Jasmina. “At Arcaea, we see how these can be applied in powerful ways in beauty to create new categories of ingredients and product functionality.”

Indeed, biotechnology innovation can go beyond replacing existing ingredients and help introduce new products that are better than what is currently on our shelves. A relatively new biotech company called Sestina Bio is going after these specialty ingredients. Their first commercial target is bakuchiol, a natural retinol alternative that does not cause the UV sensitivity and irritation that retinol can. The downside of using this super-molecule is that bakuchiol is currently sourced from a threatened plant, so its supply chain is unscalable – and the price is rising with the demand. Sestina has set out to produce this coveted ingredient using synthetic biology and precision fermentation.

But developing a new biomanufacturing process is not an easy feat: first, you have to figure out how to make that product in a microorganism like yeast, then engineer a strain that can make commercial quantities of it and is robust enough to grow in industrial conditions before you can scale up production. This process often takes years. But Sestina was able to develop a ready-for-scale-up strain in less than 12 months. This is an unprecedented timeline for new product development in the biotech industry. They were able to beat the one-year mark by using data science and cutting-edge genome engineering tools, like Inscripta’s Onyx® platform.

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For companies like Sestina, Inscripta is streamlining the strain engineering process with their Onyx instrument that does CRISPR editing and more inside a black box. The way it works is that you put in a standard yeast strain and after 2-4 days it returns thousands of engineered cells that can be screened for improvement. Sounds like magic? It’s not. It’s actually a combination of bioinformatics software, advanced microfluidics, custom chemistry, optimized enzymes, and computational power that enables this machine to do everything that a full-staffed lab can do – but much faster. With it, projects that used to take years can now be done in just a few months, and Sestina’s bakuchiol success story proves it.

“Creating a Bakuchiol strain that can survive the rigors of scaleup and win in manufacturing required significant enzyme improvement and unexpected whole genome edits that support the pathway. The Onyx allowed us to rapidly accomplish both goals in parallel, greatly accelerating our entire process,” said Andrew Horwitz, VP of R&D at Sestina Bio, in a press release.

Bakuchiol is one of the first commercial bioproduct that has been developed with the help of the Onyx platform. But other synthetic biology companies working in the ingredients space are also looking to speed up their product development process with Inscripta’s Onyx instrument. Those using Inscripta’s technology include giants like Amyris, Ginkgo Bioworks, and Willow Biosciences. Willow Biosciences is working on producing high-purity ingredients for the personal care, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical markets, such as cannabigerol (“CBG”), the first commercial ingredient in its portfolio.

Inscripta itself is not going after any specific ingredients but rather providing the tools for synthetic biology companies to reach their goals faster by speeding up the research, design, and process development of new commercial products. Ginkgo Bioworks also does strain engineering as a service: they have been working with companies like Givaudan and Bolt Threads to help transform nature-sourced ingredients into more sustainable versions made in microbes.

In a sense, what companies like Inscripta and Ginkgo do is provide the proverbial “picks and shovels” for the sustainable ingredients market goldrush. Their technology can help reduce product development times from years to months and that provides a real competitive advantage in a fast-paced biotech environment. What that means for companies is they can bring more sustainable ingredients to market faster – and for us, that we can put them on our faces sooner in the race against time.

Thank you to Katia Tarasava for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about, including Inscripta, Amyris, and Ginkgo Bioworks, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.

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