A Q&A with Lis and Paula of Cyanotype Bio

By: Collaborative Team

Plant cell agriculture is an industry that has been around since the 1980s. While much of the innovation has recently focused on seed production to speed up the process of producing more climate resilient crops and trees, Shared Future Fund portfolio company, Cyanotype Bio is embarking on a more unique discipline. Namely, how can we protect biodiversity by the biobanking and chemical cataloging of rare and endangered plant tissues?

Lis Evans and Paula Elbl came together almost one year ago to build this next-gen business focused on leveraging rare plant species for the production of valuable materials. They both have impressive backgrounds as scientists and are coming into their own as founders and company builders.

We were excited to sit down with the both of them to learn more about what exactly they do within plant cell agriculture, and where they see the business going.

What does it mean to be a “biodiversity company”?

Cyanotype Bio’s mission is to protect biodiversity through plant cell agriculture. Endangered plant tissues serve as our “starting” material from which we generate cell lines and vegetative samples to preserve genetic diversity of the plant species population. This is essential for future resilience and survival involved in conservation and rewilding efforts.

Beyond preserving the present-day snapshot of each specific plant collected, we focus on disrupting product markets in which the current mainstream options carry heavy environmental footprints and are actively contributing to biodiversity loss during their life cycle. We prioritize our pipeline in terms of product applications that can enable the deceleration and reversal of the main drivers of biodiversity loss: changes in land use, direct exploitation of natural resources, pollution, invasive alien species, and climate change.

By way of example, a few of the “plantibilities” we have envisioned using plant cell agriculture include:

  • Sunscreen designed to eliminate chemical run-off in sensitive aquatic environments and to reduce the reliance on mineral mining
  • Dandelion rubber as an alternative for petroleum based tires, which generate an estimated 85% of microplastics found in waterways
  • Selective pesticides that target invasive pest populations while sparing native pollinators

Beyond new material generation, where do you see additional value creation and a big business opportunity?

For one, there’s tremendous value in cataloging and modeling the data from the chemical signatures of previously uncharacterized plant tissues and their derivatives. As 40% of the world’s plant species are under threat of extinction, there’s a huge need to capture existing biodiversity. In addition to these devastating ecosystem losses that we face with continued plant extinction events, we are at risk of losing the opportunity to analyze distinct tissue-specific chemical compositions that have evolved in plants over hundreds of millions of years. What’s fascinating is that we see even more chemical diversity in our lab-grown plant cells, in part due to the artificial conditions acting as systemic stressors, eliciting the cells to generate a novel chemical response.

A perhaps less intuitive aspect is the value in protecting nature. It is worth underscoring the under appreciated urgency for the bioeconomy to innovate natural product supply chains. Globally, biodiversity underlies economic prosperity, with more than half of the global GDP dependent on natural resources. We are already seeing big companies reliant on traditional agriculture facing operational risks and pricing volatilities due to extreme weather events and impacted fragile ecosystems. We see plant cell agriculture as one intervention that can build needed supply chain resilience in generating novel supply streams.

Plant cell culture holds enormous potential for sustainable & efficient production of high-value compounds. What potential applications are you most excited about?

When we reflect on the achievements of the first wave of plant cell fermentation companies from the ‘80s, the most exciting aspect was the demonstration that plant cells grown in bioreactors could be efficient and scalable chemical factories for high-value compounds ranging from natural pigments to therapeutics. Placitaxel, the anti-cancer agent originally derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, is the classic plant cell technology example. Instead of using three trees to produce enough placitaxel for a single patient, a small source tissue sample could be used to generate an infinite supply of plant cells. Not to mention, plant cell agriculture is climate independent and does not rely on monocrop cultivation.

Looking forward from a biomanufacturing perspective, we see a huge upside for plant cell technology to produce phytochemicals with complex structures while drastically reducing industrial reliance on toxic solvents and risks of bioprospecting currently involved with semi-synthetic approaches.

From a product perspective, we are most excited for nature positive innovations that showcase some functional capability of specialized plants, such as screening UV light to protect tissue damage. This is where we have focused for our launch product, a novel sunscreen designed for both the planet and its inhabitants.