“If we were in Europe or the USA it would be odd to organize a meeting to connect the industry with the academy, because there it is a constant activity. Here we are beginning to establish such a routine”, pointed out Patricio Aceituno, Dean of the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences of the University of Chile in the First Cycle of Meetings with the Industry organized by the Centre for Biotechnology and Bioengineering (CeBiB).
One of the main goals of the centre is to transform its cutting-edge research into practical applications that can help the productive sectors of our country become more profitable and sustainable. The work at CeBiB aims at contributing in making Chile go from a model based on raw materials to one based on added value.
Connecting science and industry
These are the reasons behind the relevance of the First Cycle of Meetings with the Industry, carried out by CeBiB on September 7th. More than 40 attendees were part of the first event to have national scientists presenting their research to representatives of Chilean and international enterprises.
In his speech, the Dean of the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences of the University of Chile, Patricio Aceituno, remarked that “we have managed to become [polo]. If our scientific research is not relevant for our development as a country, it is confined to mere scientific curiosity. This event is the beginning of a tighter link to the industrial world”.
Innovation in mining
Juan A. Asenjo, Director of CeBiB, believes that “something very important is starting to happen in Chile: innovation is beginning to be valued as it should, given that it allows us to transform science into something useful for society”.
One such example is the experience of Ecometales, an affiliate of Codelco -the Chilean National Corporation for Copper- that offers environmental solutions for the mining industry and processes to recover metals. Iván Valenzuela, CEO of Ecometales, explained that “our main achievement, more than ten years ago, was to understand which would be the most relevant environmental needs in the future”.
Ecometales has recovered more than 75.000 tonnes of fine copper from waste and has a positive cash flow since 2006. Iván Valenzuela remarked this point: “It’s very relevant: when you have a positive cash flow you can look everyone eye-to-eye”.
CeBiB and Ecometales are currently working on a project to optimize arsenic oxidation processes.
Por su parte la doctora Patricia Morales, representante de la Cámara para la Innovación Farmacéutica, resumió la situación de los estudios clínicos en Chile: “Se invierten alrededor de 80 millones de dólares anuales en investigación. Somos el país de América Latina que más investigación clínica concentra. Sin embargo, este escenario tiene limitantes que es necesario abordar”.
Research in critical areas for Chile
As a first approach, CeBiB researchers shared the work being done at the centre. Juan Asenjo and Daniela Vaisman explained the latest advances in metabolic engineering and protein engineering, putting special emphasis on the search for new technologies to obtain hyaluronic acid, using waste from the forestry industry and algae as an energy source.
They also commented on the research with extremophiles from the Atacama Desert, which produce biocompounds that have found their way into a series of skin-care products with photoprotecting capabilities.
Another promising technology is the extraction of phlorotannins -powerful antioxidants- from macroalgae, specifically from Macrocystis pyrifera.
Asenjo and Vaisman also pointed out the development of enzymes capable of working optimally at lower temperatures than the ones currently in use by the industry, thus enabling them to be used in the development of detergents, biofuels, animal food and medical compounds.
The challenge of handling big volumes of data
Mauricio Marín, Principal Researcher at CeBiB and Ph.D in Computer Science at the University of Oxford, focused his presentation on the development of algorithms and software capable of efficiently compressing and sending big volumes of genomical data. This work is taking the form of a platform to store and share the sequences, creating a “social network” of specialists.
He also described the challenge of starting research with the national industry in the area of genomics and medicine through the development of digital platforms to handle big databases of patients’ information in order to mine them and develop therapies.
Mathematics in service of healthcare
“A mathematical model can summarize everything we know about a system in a set of equations where you can simulate and test hypothesis about the system’s behaviour”. This was the summary that Ziomara Gerdtzen, CeBiB researcher, gave about the capabilities of this line of research.
Some examples given by the researcher were the search for a model of iron absorption in human beings, which could eventually lead to proposing therapeutical strategies to combat related diseases.
Another research currently in development at CeBiB is the modelling of the evolution of tumors, which will eventually allow us to understand how cancer evolves according to the different factors at play and leading to better decision-making regarding treatment and information for patients.
Obtaining biocompounds from macroalgae
The algae market has shown an exponential growth in the last few years. By 2021 it should reach approximately USD $18.000 million. CeBiB researchers María Elena Lienqueo and Carolina Camus shared with the attendees their efforts in the field.
María Elena Lienqueo works in what is known as the blue biorefinery, aiming to produce high-value biocompounds and biofuel from algae biomass. However, in order to achieve this a constant biomass is required, cultured and grown in a sustainable manner.
Carolina Camus assured that “we want to become a country that produces added value from cultivated algae”. The researcher shared the project developed at the i-mar Centre, associated to CeBiB, where the biggest macroalgae farm in the world has been developed, reaching an area of 200.000 m2.
“Here at CeBiB we want to contribute towards sustainable aquaculture. Its core should be massive culture and added value (such as the biorefinery), which eventually become new exportations”, remarked Camus.
Collaboration: the essential factor
María Isabel Guerra, Technology Transfer Manager at CeBiB, closed the meeting explaining the various ways in which enterprises and research centres can collaborate.
“These opportunities to share our work range from training -having our students do internships or doctoral thesis in the industry- to the participation in our technology portfolio. Even though we like doing this out of mere curiosity, we are also interested in working towards useful developments according to our country’s needs”.