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July 14, 2021
By Trevor Mallo
Capra Biosciences: Bio-Based Performance Chemicals for Tomorrow’s Edge

If you haven’t been following the trends in synthetic biology, just know that bio-based chemicals are the future. Capra Biosciences reimagined biosynthesis by developing a low-cost, continuous flow method that scales OUT without having to scale up. Pairing a proprietary continuous flow bioreactor with a novel biofilm forming organism, they are producing hyrdophobic products like retinol and performance lubricants, but without the petroleum.They do this using a fraction of the water required compared to traditional batch fermentation methods. Less water means less volume means less stainless steel. We sat down with CEO Liz Onderko and CSO Andrew Magyar to understand how Capra is upending the conventional wisdom that biomanufacturing is capex intensive. 

When we co-invented this technology… this was really something that I could see taking my love and belief in the power of biology and being able to turn it into something that could really impact the world.

Liz Onderko, CEO Capra Biosciences

The latest trends in synthetic biology point to a future of bio-based chemicals and materials that exceed performance specs. You’ve mentioned lubricants with improved performance specs, but during SOSV’s IndieBio program, you set out to make bio-retinol for the clean cosmetics market – what prompted this path? 

The decision to start with retinol – a small volume, high value cosmetics ingredient –  was influenced by the challenges the early biofuels companies faced. By starting out with retinol, we can fold our learnings back into our platform as we gradually scale up to larger volume products. 

The IndieBio team has helped us to learn a lot more about the cosmetics industry through both directly and through the program mentors they’ve connected us with. Through these interactions, we’ve been able to recognize some of the unique requirements for cosmetics products but also the tremendous market opportunity that clean retinol presents.

The novel organism you use naturally forms biofilms, and why is that so important?
Biofilms are really what enables our technology. A lot of people might not even have heard of biofilms before – I definitely hadn’t given them much thought before my postdoc! Biofilms are formed when microbes stick to each other and to surfaces. In a biofilm, microbes are more robust than if they are floating around alone in solution – this can make biofilms like dental plaque hard to remove, but this robustness is a great feature for our bioreactor. We’ve designed our bioreactor to work with biofilms – this combination is what allows us to operate in continuous flow as well as efficiently extract our product. 

As a bio-based chemicals company, how does Capra scale out?
The way our bioreactors scale is really different from how it’s done with conventional fermentation. By multiplexing our production scale bioreactors which are about 10 Liters, instead of making larger and larger bioreactors, we can avoid the productivity drop that is often seen when scaling up in the fermentation systems used today. You might think that multiplexing our bioreactors would increase our infrastructure costs, but the most exciting thing we learned from our technoeconomic analysis is that because our technology uses up to 100x less water, our capex costs actually go way down. 

Tell us about your team. What made you take the leap into entrepreneurship?
Andrew and I met when I was doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Naval Research Lab and he was a principal scientist at Draper Labs. I was working on engineering biofilm-forming organisms and Andrew was focused on developing bioinstrumentation for synthetic biology – it was this combination of biology and instrumentation that led us to the idea for our bioreactor technology and the vision for our company.  

We both see a need for technologies that will drive down the cost of biological chemical manufacturing so it can become accessible for a much wider range of products and believe our bioreactor technology can play an important role in the future of chemical manufacturing.

What do you envision for the future of Capra? 

We envision a future where our proprietary biofilm bioreactor platform is the standard way to produce non-water soluble chemicals. In this future, Capra Biosciences has grown to become a large B2B chemical manufacturer selling retinol, specialty high-performance lubricants, and other hydrophobic chemicals, contributing to the replacement of petrochemicals with sustainable biologically-produced chemicals.