The Atlantic Ocean has played an extremely important role in the history of Portugal. As a glorious nation of seafarers, to this day the Portuguese look at the ocean as a central component to the development of their bioeconomy. Water, together with forests and agriculture, is one of the fundamental elements with which the Portuguese government aims to grow an economy based on biological resources, in line with the European Union guidelines. Although a complete national strategy for the bieconomy has still not been established, a step in this direction was made in 2014 with the publication of the National Ocean Strategy 2013-2020. The strategy’s objective is the economic, social and environmental enhancement of the Portuguese maritime area so that by 2020 it can generate 50% of the country’s GDP.
Over the past few years, Portugal has undergone a positive transformation. Starting as one of the weakest economies in Europe it has gone on to be a role model, demonstrating the beneficial effects of positive reforms. In 2017, Portugal’s GDP grew by 2.7% (about half a percentage more than the EU average), and both the Portuguese Central Bank and the European Central Bank (ECB) predict that this trend will continue for the next three years, even if at a slightly slower pace (2.3% in 2018, 1.9% in 2019 and 1.7% in 2020). Another important metric relates to the unemployment rate, which in 2017 fell under the European average of 9.1%, coming in at 8.9%. Additionally, the accumulated income for exported goods and services in 2017 amounted to over €80 billion, which equated to a record-breaking 42% of Portugal’s GDP. All of this would probably have seemed impossible in 2011, when Lisbon had to ask the EU, ECB and IMF for a €78 billion bailout.
The National Ocean Strategy
Over the next few years, the growth of the Portuguese economy will be driven by water, in all its possible uses. The Ocean Strategy, presented by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Sea clearly identifies three main research areas connected to the bioeconomy: aquaculture, marine biotechnologies (which have applications in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries), and bioenergy derived from the use of algae. The concept of blue growth is also present in the Smart Specialisation Strategy, presented in 2015, and in various other regional strategies.
A study commissioned to the Joint Research Centre and the nova-Institute, by the European Commission, estimates that the Portuguese bioeconomy (including biopharmaceutics but excluding biofuels) had a turn-over of approximately €40 billion in 2015; thus suggesting that the sector is still in an embryonic phase when compared to other EU states. However, a significant portion of Portugal’s primary biotech initiatives started about twenty years ago. Although Portugal doesn’t yet have a national bioeconomy plan, the Iberian nation has invested significantly in creating competitive human and scientific resources. Therefore, the country can take on a very interesting role in the European bio-based economy, combining the capital and expertise of traditional sectors (such as its world-leading paper and cellulose industry), with the immense opportunities offered by industrial biotechnologies.
Portugal has been active in the algae sector for over a decade, and now boasts international enterprises such as Iberagar, that works with the food and pharmaceutical industries; Algaplus, active in the fields of cosmetics and wellness; Sparos, a spin-off company of the Centre of Marine Sciences of Algarve that creates innovative fish-food and nutritional products; Necton, which uses micro-algae for aquaculture and cosmetics; and finally, Buggypower, a biotech company that produces marine micro-algae in photobioreactors to produce new sustainable products.
Alongside these ventures we can find an Eco-Business Park called Algatec. Algatec has been active since late 2016, promoted by the A4F Group with the support of the Belgian chemical giant Solvay, it aims to represent a cluster of Portuguese micro-algae industry players. Among Algatech’s productive units we can also find Biofat.PT, the result of a European project whose objective is the creation of biofuels from micro-algae derived biomass.
Research and the BLC3 Project
Central to the growth of the Portuguese bioeconomy is the role played by public and private sector research. Founded in May 2010, the BLC3 – Technology and Innovation Campus non-profit association represents a new model for the development of research activities, excellence in technological enrichment, the incubation of new ventures and entrepreneurial ideas, and in supporting the economic fabric of internal rural regions. Its members have a primarily technical-scientific background, and among its founders are the University of Minho and the University of Coimbra. It is the first and only Portuguese entity dedicated to development centred around the concept of circular economy for second- and third-generation biorefineries.
In 2016, the BLC3 project “Centro Bio” won the European Commission RegioStars prize for the “Sustainable Growth: Circular Economy” category, beating other 22 finalists from all over Europe. The project, which focused on the central region of Portugal, represented an investment of €9.2 million in combined private and public funds, and favoured the creation of 24 research and development sub-projects, 4 spin-offs and 6 new societies. The RegioStars prizes are awarded at the end of each year in order to recognise and reward the best practices in regional development, and to highlight the most original and innovative projects supported by the funds from the EU’s Cohesion Policy which have had a positive impact on the lives of citizens.
In 2015, BLC3 was recognised by the University Business Incubator (UBI) in their Top 10 ranking of the best European incubators, and by Politecnico di Torino’s I3P – Innovative Enterprise Incubator in their Top 25 ranking of the best incubators on a global level.
The scope of the group’s activities is multidimensional and varies based on the type of project and the sector on which these focus. In strategic areas, such as biorefinery, bioindustry, bioproducts, bioeconomy and circular economy; BLC3 develops its industrial biotech activities on a national and international scale. Activity on a local and regional level is centred around the establishment of critical mass, the enhancement of endogenous resources, and the genetic heritage of the territory.
BLC3’s brand and identity are closely connected to its flagship biorefinery project. In fact, the BLC acronym is derived from lignocellulose biomass, whereas the number 3 comes from 3G (i.e. third-generation micro-algae technology). BLC3 aims to develop bioindustry, biorefineries and bioproducts to replace fossil-fuels, minimise forest fires, and valorise lignocellulose resources, effluents and contaminated materials.
The structure and network created by BLC3 is of international excellence, formed by 55 entities across 9 European countries and over 115 researchers and scientists, all focusing on the transfer of knowledge to the market and industrial sector.
The Role of Biotechnologies
AICEP, the Portuguese agency for investment and commerce, has identified bioindustry as one of the sixteen key sectors through which to improve the country’s economy. The next few years have the potential to be the beginning of a new phase of development for bioindustry in Portugal. The biotech sector, which has now become more consolidated, is poised to be the driving force in creating stronger businesses and creating new ventures. One of the Portuguese biotech enterprises, that is making a name for itself as a global game-changer, is Silico Life. Their activity is focused around creating advanced computational biology solutions for large companies in the chemical sector, along with the development of synthetic biomaterials. Founded in 2010 by Simão Soares and Bruno Ferreira, Silico Life specialises in the development of new microbes based on metabolic engineering and synthetic biology approaches, thus producing cheaper target compounds such as biofuels, chemical products, food ingredients and biopolymers. In simple terms, it treats the microbial cell as a factory which converts raw materials into the desired chemical products.
Another Portuguese venture that develops bioproducts for the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food industries is 73100. Founded in 2006, and based in Lisbon, 73100 manages an innovative biobased platform for the production of L-fucose, a chemical building block in the oligosaccharides of human milk. A further player in the dynamic Portuguese bioindustry field is BioMimetx, based in Cantanhede. Their aim is to develop natural-based anti-vegetative solutions. BioMimetx has discovered naturally occurring bacteria with high molecule-producing capabilities, which can be used as natural antimicrobials. They are developing their first product, BMX-11, a green anti-vegetative additive which can be incorporated in marine varnishes, to be applied to hulls, nets or other seafaring materials.
The Forestry Sector
Just under 40% of Portugal’s territory is covered by forests, which provide materials for 6% of the country’s total exports. This means that the Portuguese forestry sector is very well developed, and includes world-leading companies such as Altri, Amorim and the Portucel Soporcel Group. Portugal is the largest worldwide producer of cork, generating 49% of the total global output, according to data from APCOR (Associaçao Portuguesa da Cortiça). A massive 84% of cork oak in Portugal is grown in the Atlantejo region.
The forestry sector already has a primary role in the development of the national bioeconomy. The Altri Group, for example, is involved in the biomass-based renewable energy business through a joint venture with EDP, called EDP Bioeléctica. At the moment, the company runs four functioning power stations: Mortágua, Ródão (mulino Celtejo), Constância (mulino Caima) and Figueira da Foz (mulino Celbi). The combined output of electricity from these four plants amounts to 62MW.
Portucel Soporcel is investing in the search for new markets and in research and development, so as to create advanced biorefineries to be combined with existing paper and cellulose factories. One of the projects in which the group is involved aims to produce fermentable sugars from forest biomasses and existing waste flows. The demonstrative activities have as their objective the production of ethanol and bioplastics.
National Ocean Strategy 2013-2020, www.msp-platform.eu/sites/default/files/nos_2013-2020.pdf
BLC3 – Technology and Innovation Campus, blc3.pt/index.php
Interview with Simão Soares, co-founder and CEO of SilicoLife
by M. B.
“How We are Competitive by Developing Bio-Based Projects on the Global Market”
Simão Soares is the co-founder and CEO of SilicoLife, one of the most dynamic Portuguese biotech companies that works with a powerful combination of artificial intelligence and biological knowledge, therefore contributing to the efficient production of biofuels, chemicals, food ingredients and biopolymers. In the following interview Simão Soares helps us delve deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of the Portuguese bioeconomy.
What are the strengths of the Portuguese bioeconomy?
“One of the country’s biggest strengths is the quality of human resources available, and that can be used to foster the development of a Portuguese bioeconomy. In the past three decades, Portugal has invested in training highly educated professionals, resulting in a generation of qualified scientists, especially in the technology, engineering and life sciences areas. We have world class scientific research, infrastructure and talent available. The current challenge is how to use and retain these resources – prevent brain drain with competitive conditions – to create a proper business sector, and establishing a successful bridge between academia and industries in the bioeconomy.
The genesis of the Portuguese biotech ecosystem happened in the 2000s, with the creation of the first Portuguese bio-businesses that gave birth to the initial generation of entrepreneurs with experience in technology transfer and in running biotech startups. The ongoing process is focused on attracting the attention of smart investors with experience in these fields, as well as large companies that can benefit from the developments in biotechnology, by demonstrating the potential that we have to be the hot spot for a new generation of global, knowledge-based companies.”
Who are the major bioeconomy players in Portugal?
“The Portuguese biotechnology sector is still in an early stage of development. The sector is mostly comprised of small startups that focus on health service applications. Nonetheless, in some areas of the economy we have important industries, for example in the forestry sector, whereby Portugal has a highly developed industry that includes companies that are global leaders. Companies such as The Navigator Company and Altri (pulp and paper) and Secil (cement, and also investing in advanced photobioreactor-based microalgal systems for CO2 capture) amongst others, have control of feedstocks and/or operate large scale industrial facilities. Biorefineries can be built around these established industrial facilities and hence take advantage of being integrated into larger operations as well as their proximity to where feedstock is located.
Portugal also has tremendous potential in the still untapped biodiversity of its impressive maritime area. In 2009, Portugal submitted a proposal to the UN for the expansion of the limits of its continental shelf, which would create a maritime area of over 3,877,408 km2.
The quality of Portuguese scientific research has also drawn the attention of international companies, like Amyris that recently opened an R&D centre together with Católica University of Porto. The next step is to have more companies engage in similar initiatives, as well as involving them with smaller and innovative Portuguese companies, thus helping them to grow.”
What is the role of SilicoLife in the Portuguese bioeconomy?
“SilicoLife is a good example of the Portuguese potential for creating businesses supported by high quality science and people. SilicoLife designs optimised microorganisms and novel pathways for industrial biotechnology applications based on metabolic engineering and artificial intelligence approaches. All of which whilst working from Portugal with leading companies around the world. This was only possible due to the excellence of our team of scientists and developers, that allow us to compete in the global arena and be a point of reference in the rational design of cell factories. Growing in Portugal, whilst having a revenue stream that mainly comes from other countries and without external investors, was only possible due to the exceptional quality of scientific research and more importantly of the people behind it.
After more than eight years working closely with leading industrial players, we are now extending our activities from the computational design of cell factories to the integrated development of optimised strains, focusing on the creation of biological alternatives for the production of high value chemicals that can benefit from being produced using a fermentative process.
The first advance of our transition towards a product-oriented company is BUTANOVA, a technology that we announced recently for the production of n-butanol (which can be used as a biofuel and as a solvent). This is a great example of the innovation that can be created in Portugal and exported to other countries, positioning the country as a technology provider for the bioeconomy.
At SilicoLife we are demonstrating that it is possible to be competitive and successful by developing bio-based projects on the global market.”
Portugal doesn’t have a national strategy for the bioeconomy. How important would it be to have one?
“Portugal still doesn’t have a national strategy for the bioeconomy but important efforts have been made in that direction. Earlier this year, the national plan for the promotion of bio-refineries, coordinated by the National Laboratory of Energy and Geology, was presented.
SilicoLife is involved in the definition of a national strategy by participating in the board of the Portuguese Bioindustries Association (P-Bio). P-BIO has been contributing to the discussion of a national bioeconomy strategy by holding several discussions with officials from the Ministry of Economy that have involved talking about biotechnology, life sciences and the bioeconomy as part of the Portuguese political agenda.
Despite not having a formal national plan for the bioeconomy, Portugal has an excellent and very competitive scientific environment, as well as a highly-qualified human resource pool. Therefore, it has all the key ingredients with which to play an interesting role in the European bioeconomy, especially when taking advantage of the experience and capital from traditional sectors (e.g. Portugal hosts a world-class pulp and paper sector), that can in turn benefit their business with the immense opportunities of industrial biotechnology.”
How important will it be for the Portuguese bioeconomy to have a strong relationship with Brazil?
“This relationship is still largely unexplored on the business side. Portuguese researchers have a strong connection with their counterparts in Brazil but this link has not yet translated to companies in the industrial biotechnology sector.
I believe we can learn a lot from a country that has been developing its bioeconomy since the 60s and has a unique concentration of feedstock. Brazil can be a logical next step to scale-up in partnership with local technologies developed and tested in Portugal. The current economic and social situation in Brazil is constraining the role that the country could play in the world but, in the medium-term, this situation will improve and Brazil will strengthen its position as a point of reference in the bioeconomy and in the industrial biotechnology sector.”
How does public opinion perceive the bioeconomy in Portugal?
“As previously mentioned, the Portuguese bioeconomy is still in its infancy with a significant part of the first biotech ventures starting less than 20 years ago. These initial try-outs are now maturing to a state where they can influence the political and media agenda with their experience, successes and failures in building bio-based businesses.
The bioeconomy in Portugal should be a combination of novel and traditional businesses. We must look to the sectors where the latest biotechnology innovations can be applied (i.e. traditional industries such as in forestry, marine, pulp and paper, agriculture) and contribute to expand their business opportunities by using biotechnology, and leveraging the capabilities, resources and experience that they already have.
The bioeconomy must be presented as an opportunity to create new companies based on world-class science, as well as reshaping the traditional sectors and aspiring to offer products on the global market.”
What measures are present in Portugal to support the development of the bioeconomy? What else should be implemented in the short term?
“We have to take advantage of the critical mass of the biotech sector, which is now much more consolidated, creating stronger ventures and reorganising the current ones. It is important to have large companies looking into the bioeconomy, particularly industrial biotechnology, having them work with small and specialised companies and tackling the opportunities presented by the bioeconomy together (e.g. renewable chemicals, agriculture, valorisation of waste streams).
The government and regulatory bodies can foster the development of the bioeconomy by creating mechanisms that make it more attractive for these traditional and large companies to work with the smaller, specialised ones. One of the mechanisms can be to give tax benefits, enabling these kind of relationships while having legal structures that can ensure fair partnerships and promote the adoption of bio-based products (e.g. biofuels and renewable chemicals). Attracting foreign investment is also an important avenue for the valorisation of the resources in the country. However, these should be long term commitments and not remain isolated from the rest of the Portuguese economy. These projects should be linked, whenever possible, with Portuguese startups helping them to scale-up their technologies by collaborating with international players.
Just as the country was able to create ‘good hype’ around IT, we need to learn from that and translate that approach to the bioeconomy and industrial biotechnology. We must work to show that we have great resources, great people, great infrastructure and that we can provide the right environment for the development, design and upscaling of technologies for the global bioeconomy.”