Could a ‘Bio-Belt’ Boost the Economy of Rural America?

scientist touching innovation icons on transparent board

Could biotech be the catalyst for a financial boom in the heartland of America?

For John Cumbers, chief executive officer of SynBioBeta, an innovation network of researchers, investors and engineers with a focus of using biology to develop a better world, turning rural America into a biotech hotbed may be an answer to kick start the local economies and advance new products that could benefit the nation and world. In a recent column published on the Forbes website, Cumbers argues for the creation of a “Bio-Belt” stretching across rural America in the middle states that will “bring new skills and high-paying jobs to communities that desperately need them.” Biotechnology investments that would focus on things like biofuels and other products, could bolster the economies and strengthen the workforce of a large swath of the country that has not seen the benefit of an economic boom, Cumbers said.

While there have been proposals for biofuels in the past, Cumbers said this investment would be about more than growing crops for biofuels. He also pointed out fermentation as a means toward the end.

“Fermentation is an increasingly powerful force for converting sugar and other forms of biomass into value-added goods—all through the rational design of cells that can be sustainably grown wherever land is abundant,” Cumbers wrote.

Click to take the 2019 ideal employer survey.

In his column, Cumbers pointed to several companies that are achieving some success in these areas. New York-based Ecovative, which is developing sustainable alternatives to plastics and other materials with mushrooms. The company is using its platform to develop alternative meat products, biodegradable packaging materials, leather replacements and more. Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks is using yeast to ferment perfumes among other goals, including genetic engineering of mammalian cells. Washington-based Arzeda is developing new enzymes that will serve as catalysts for the formation of novel food products.

Cumbers also pointed to other companies in the Midwest, his target area, that are forging ahead in the areas he championed. In Illinois, Sustainable Bioproducts is focused on developing new ways to grow sustainable protein. Earlier this year, Sustainable snagged $33 million in Series A funding to support its mission. According to a company statement, its technology” emerged out of fundamental research into extremophile organisms that live in Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic springs.” That work ending up leading to the development of an “innovative fermentation technology, which can grow protein with great nutritional value and minimal impact on the environment.” Also located in Illinois is Provectus Environmental Products. The company is developing products that are used to clean environmental hazards. One of its products, Provect-IR is used to treat chlorinated solvents and halogenated compounds.

In Iowa, Integrated DNA Technologies says part of its mission is finding new biological solutions for cleaning up natural resources.

Cumbers argues that the work of companies like the aforementioned could benefit rural America, but it will require significant investment. He noted it will require “strategic partnerships” between businesses, academia and although it was not stated, state and local governments as well.

“Success will also depend on partnerships between community colleges and local businesses to provide a pipeline of individuals with the skills needed to work in regional biotech clusters. The government should incentivize these partnerships,” Cumbers said.

He also called for the establishment of laboratories in rural areas that could serve as incubators for biotech startups focused on using biology to develop sustainable products. If stakeholders took up the plan, Cumbers predicts “innovation would grow in rural areas, and biomanufacturing could expand across the country, where land and feedstock are abundant.”

Cumbers closes out his call with a reminder that calls for improving infrastructure in the 21st century is not just about the building of roads and bridges, a critical component of infrastructure is the bioeconomy.

Back to news