With a goal of phasing out toxic and forever chemicals in consumer products, the UK-based biotech startup is spearheading the ethical, equitable discovery and utilization of the safe, effective chemicals and proteins waiting to be found in nature and developed for human use and benefit.
Demand for natural alternatives to the problematic chemicals that proliferate our consumer products continues to grow. From the growing biomimicry movement, the growth in demand for organic foods, to the push towards using chemical- and pesticide-free products in everything from farming to cleaning and personal-care products, there is a clear need for more natural, safe alternatives to synthetic chemicals.
But to access those, we need to better understand the diverse molecules and proteins that already exist in nature. That is where Basecamp Research, a UK-based biotech startup, comes in.
“Our core aim is really to connect the worlds of biodiversity and biotechnology,” synthetic biologist and Basecamp co-founder Glen Gowers told Sustainable Brands®.
Basecamp Research emerged from an expedition that Gowers led in Iceland, which was the first to do fully off-grid DNA sequencing. Doing that was a game changer — as previously, DNA sequencing meant a lengthy and costly process of collecting samples and analyzing them in far-off labs. This will enable an exponential growth in our capability to analyze nature and find natural biochemistries.
The importance of this can’t be understated. While the rise of the chemical and petrochemical industry gave rise to many important innovations, it came at a cost. For the past several decades, these synthetic, human-created chemicals were damaging the environment — and human health. Recent news about the impacts of one group of dangerous chemicals, PFAS, shows just how big of a problem this has become.
As Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, explained in a statement: “PFAS can be found everywhere, in so many different products that we come into contact with every day,”
PFAS refers to polyfluoroalkyl substances, or forever chemicals, as they are called by environmentalists. They are used in the manufacturing of cosmetic products; but it turns out they can linger permanently in the air, water or soil — causing long-term damage to ecosystems and, potentially, animal and human health. They are even widespread in US drinking water.
PFAS are just one of the many dangerous chemicals we use on a daily basis. We know that we need to move away from them; but as of now there often aren’t enough proven, effective, natural alternatives — which limits the ability of companies to switch to safer alternatives. And that is one example of what Basecamp Research hopes to change.
“We started Basecamp Research to really scale that up,” Gowers says. “The core asset of the company is an enormous database that categorizes and functionally annotates what these molecules — these proteins — do, so that we can apply them in an industrial setting as accurately as possible.”
According to Gowers, there’s a huge untapped potential in nature — as only a tiny fraction, an estimated .5 percent, of global biodiversity has been analyzed.
A unique thing about Basecamp Research is its model, which involves working with local partners around the world. Local partners, and the biodiversity regions they operate in, will get a percentage of royalties from any product derived from their joint work. Basecamp has also committed to meeting the stringent standards set in the United Nations Nagoya Protocol, part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, for ethical sharing of biological resources.
“We build partnerships with institutions, government organizations, and researchers on the ground,” Gowers says. “These are fair and equitable partnerships, which essentially enable that local institution to eventually be able to do their own bio-prospecting for their own purposes.”
Of course, saying a partnership is fair and equitable is one thing. Designing those partnerships is something else entirely. And one challenge is, particularly in the Global South — home to most of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots — there’s a difficult legacy to overcome. The pillaging of plants, genetic materials, and even animal species from local communities has been taking place for centuries with no compensation provided to locals. That leads to skepticism — something that Gowers’s team of Antarctic ice divers and graph ML scientists has to overcome.
Gowers is well aware of this and cautions that there are no quick shortcuts when it comes to doing things right.
“It's incredibly complicated,” he says. “As a startup, you want to move very fast and be able to test a few models quickly. When you're working with these sensitive topics in biodiversity, there's no shortcuts that you can take.”
One way they’ve engaged partners is through active knowledge sharing: “We train [and] share data with local scientists; and we build up capacity through training education, as well.”
In the future, Gowers believes this model could help incentivize the protection of biodiversity hotspots by providing new revenue streams, through royalties from natural proteins, to those landscapes.
There’s a big investment potential, as well. Last fall, a group of investors managing $8 trillion in assets called on the world’s biggest chemical companies to phase out forever chemicals. Basecamp hopes to tap into the growing desire from ethical investors for natural biochemistries.
“The importance of the chemical industry for protection of biodiversity and natural capital is crucial,” Liudmila Strakodonskaya, ESG Analyst at AXA Investment Managers, said in a statement. “We are ready to work with companies to further the ... transition towards more sustainable solutions.”
For now, we’re moving too slowly — PFAS are still mostly unregulated; and only a few companies, including 3M, have committed to their phase-out. But the wider availability of safer, natural alternatives could accelerate that shift.
Gowers has a clear vision of what he wants all of us to see someday, at our local grocery store or pharmacy.
“When we start to see bio-protein products entering into the consumer products that we use every day — on the back label, which country this was derived from, and who the benefits went to — that's going to be a phenomenal moment.”