The next 35 years will require unprecedented innovation to meet the demands of a population of 9.6 billion. Scientists at the Iowa State University-led Center for Biorenewable Chemicals are answering the call. Blending chemistry, biology and engineering, and entrepreneurial training, CBiRC researchers have created unique molecules from biological material and have established six start-up companies to take biorenewable chemicals to market.

“It’s a potential for a whole new wave of innovation with new chemical compounds we couldn’t access through petrochemical sources,” said CBiRC Director Brent Shanks, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State. “Not only are we looking at replacing (petrochemicals), we’re also looking at new innovative potential in plastics, antimicrobials, lubricants, and cosmetics.”

To date, CBiRC scientists have created four biobased molecules and are conducting end use tests to determine the types of products the new molecules are best suited for. The center also operates a BioBased Foundry that combines entrepreneurship training and mentoring to assist graduate and postdoctoral researchers in launching companies to commercialize their inventions.

“You go through the steps of starting a company and learn the business side of how you translate technology and innovation into actually physically doing something,” said Robert Johnson, a graduate researcher who has launched one of the start-ups. His firm, SusTerea, will be commercializing a biobased compound that can be used to manufacture plastics, detergents, sun-blocking agents, and even treatments for malaria.

The center is supported by nearly $35.3 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, including approximately $8.5 million awarded this year to support CBiRC through August 2018 when the center must become self-supporting. The early success is tied to an interdisciplinary approach that brings together biology, chemistry, and engineering – disciplines that historically have been separated.

Iowa State’s interdisciplinary approach to biorenewables is a focus of Destination 2050, a university-wide initiative to apply the vast capabilities of Iowa State to meet food, health, environmental, and industrial challenges the world must address during the next 35 years.