Noting that palm oil production is a leading cause of global deforestation, driven by myriad of companies that use it to make beauty, cleaning and self-care products, San Diego-based biotech company Genomatica (Geno) and London-based Unilever announced a $120 million joint venture last month (June 16) to develop and deploy an alternative, plant-based palm oil alternative made using biotechnology.
The innovation is particularly relevant to cleaning and personal care products that require ingredients to lather and lift dirt. Currently, there are few viable alternatives to palm and fossil sources that can be produced at scale to make those ingredients. The Geno and Unilever joint venture, which is expected to attract other partners in palm oil-dependent industries, offers a sustainable supply chain solution in the $625 billion home and personal care markets.
“We’re looking at markets that have huge opportunity and volume because if we target them, the sustainability impact will be maximized,” said Sasha Calder, head of impact at Geno.
Because of Unilever’s size and reach – sales in over 190 countries and products used by 3.4 billion people every day – Geno will be able to maximize the impact of its biotechnology platform, which is estimated to reduce the carbon footprint of palm-derived ingredients by up to 50%.
“Biotechnology has the potential to revolutionize the sourcing of our cleansing ingredients and ensure Unilever is a future-fit business – for consumers, shareholders and the planet we all share.
“This new venture will sit at the intersection of science and sustainability, meaning we can continue to grow our business without relying only on palm oil or fossil fuel derivatives, while also making our supply chains more resilient from having access to ingredient alternatives,” Unilever Chief R&D Officer Richard Slater said. “We will be marrying science and nature to make sure there is no tradeoff for our consumers between the efficacy and sustainability of their products. We are building this innovative new venture to have the scale to drive real impact and change in our industry, helping to reinvent the chemistry of home and personal care products for the 21st Century.”
Replacing the chemistry of home and personal care products is just the most recent success story for Geno.
“The latest that we’re really excited about is we worked on a bio-nylon,” Calder said, adding that Geno found a way to use plants and sugars to replace the fossil fuels used to create nylon – a $22 billion industry.
“Lululemon, the apparel company, invested in Geno, both as an investor and a partner, so we’re helping them hit their sustainability goals,” Calder said. “Nylon is the number one ingredient used in their garments.”
Geno CEO Christophe Schilling said the collaboration with Unilever builds upon the company’s record of partnering with market leaders “from clothing to now cleaning ingredients” committed to commercialization of sustainable materials in their industries.
“We’ve developed our technology in response to our planet’s urgent climate crisis and we’ve proven that biotechnology can replace traditional production methods to produce ingredients with bio-based sources that deliver both high-performance and sustainability, at scale,” he said. “Our technology enables pathways for alternative sourcing of materials whose supply chains often have limited social and environmental transparency, by offering more resilient supply chains that are transparent, traceable and responsibly sourced as demanded by consumers. Beyond creating new transparent and responsibly sourced-supply chains and alternatively sourced materials, our Geno technology also represents the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tons in upcoming years.”
One of the examples of Geno’s impact on reducing greenhouse gasses is its earliest technology – Bio-BDO (1,4-butanediol), a precursor to materials like Spandex and used to make shoes, foams, car plastics and more, which resulted in 90% less greenhouse gasses compared to previous production methods.
Geno also produces an ingredient called Brontide which is on the market now as a replacement for the butylene glycol used in a lot of bathroom products like soaps and shampoos. Brontide offers has 50% reduction in greenhouse gasses, Calder said.
Business: Sustainability-driven biotech company
Headquarters: San Diego, UTC
CEO: Christophe Schilling
Notable: Geno’s biotech platform is estimated to offer up to 50% reduction in carbon footprint compared to traditional palm oil.