A startup supported by FAPESP is developing a platform that will enable local production of enzymes to act as catalysts for chemical reactions (photo: Apexzymes)

Technology for local production of industrial enzymes in Brazil

09 de abril de 2024

By Roseli Andrion  |  FAPESP Innovative R&D – Enzymes accelerate chemical reactions, both in the human organism and in many sectors of industry. Companies that need enzymes in Brazil must import them. Apexzymes, a startup based in Campinas, São Paulo state, is developing technology to enable enzymes to be produced locally.

As proteins, enzymes are primary constituents of all organisms. Acting as catalysts to help speed up chemical reactions, they are used in the manufacturing of many products, from detergents to food to biofuels, among countless others. They are hard to make and expensive to buy, not least because there are no domestic rivals to imported enzymes. “Their actual application is limited as a result, and this is a hindrance to local manufacturers,” said Lucas Salera Parreiras, a biotechnologist and co-founder of Apexzymes.

Factories lacking enzymes typically use chemical routes to accelerate specific processes in the production chain, consuming a great deal of energy to maintain high temperatures and pressures, and requiring large amounts of chemicals, which produce effluents and wastewater with a significant environmental impact.

Any increase in the supply of affordable enzymes will be good for the environment by avoiding the use of chemical catalysts. “Enzymes play the same role as conventional catalysts but are effective at lower temperatures. Moreover, proteins aren't environmental hazards because they’re biodegradable,” said Lucas Fonseca, a biochemist and co-founder of Apexzymes.

The startup is currently developing the technology with support from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE), but it is already planning next steps. “Our technology can be used to produce various kinds of enzymes. Initially, the strategy is to focus on the biofuel and food industries. In the long term, we plan to expand into other segments,” Parreiras said.

There are important reasons for this choice of areas. “In biofuels, for example, Brazil is one of the world leaders. The need to cut greenhouse gas emissions has given rise to a global movement to substitute biorenewables for fossil fuels. In food, demand is strong but industrial enzymes are expensive and not always available,” he noted.

Both Parreiras and Fonseca once worked for a company that produces biofuels and know the industry’s needs well. “The demand was there, but only one or two suppliers existed,” Parreiras recalled. “Many organizations have no choice but to source enzymes from foreign companies. We realized this was a good opportunity.”

Foreign investment

FAPESP’s support was essential to help establish the startup, according to Parreiras. “When we just had the idea, this support enabled us to set up the firm,” he said. GridExponential (GRIDX), an Argentinian venture capital company, has recently invested in the startup to bolster its research and development processes. The partnership followed a meeting with a representative of GRIDX at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), in São Paulo state, where the startup is incubating. “Their investment will enable us to validate our technology by scaling up the process and conducting a case study. As a result, we’ll have enough information to raise funds for investment in a factory,” Parreiras said.

When the case study is completed, as they expect it to be at some point in 2025, a factory will have to be built to produce the enzymes. “FAPESP’s support was fundamental to the initial development of the technology. It helped attract interest and made GRIDX’s investment possible. At the end of the development stage, we’ll be able to do the calculations to demonstrate that building a factory really is economically feasible. We expect to enter the market in 2026,” he said.

When the technology is ready, the firm will apply to the appropriate regulatory agencies for approval. “The enzymes are genetically modified microorganisms, which require the approval of the National Biosafety Technical Commission [CTNBio]. Additionally, for the food industry, for example, we’ll need the approval of ANVISA, the Brazilian equivalent of the FDA in the United States. The same will occur in other segments,” he said.

Benefits for domestic industries

The enzymes are used in the production process and are not necessarily part of the end product. Nevertheless, the use of indigenous technology will benefit the Brazilian market by reducing costs. “The benefits to manufacturers will range from increased income to reduced production costs. End products may well reach the consumer at a lower price,” Parreiras said.

Apexzymes has estimates for the biofuel industry, for example. “We believe we can market our product at a price that should be about 30% of what companies now spend on the imported option. There are points to be adjusted and corrections to be made, but we foresee strong potential,” Fonseca predicted.

Even imported enzymes are unavailable for some segments, but the startup’s technology can permit production of these, according to Fonseca. “Sometimes the product doesn’t exist for lack of economic feasibility. When our technology is ready, we’ll be able to evaluate these opportunities and decide whether it permits production of these options,” he said.

Another advantage of producing enzymes domestically is being closer to Brazilian customers. “We can customize enzymes according to local needs and characteristics,” Parreiras said. Logistics will also be simplified, and any necessary corrections can be made more easily.

“Some customers may want to stockpile enzymes so as to avoid the risk of a shortage,” Fonseca said. “Production losses may occur if there are problems with transportation. Imported enzymes are normally transported by oceangoing vessels.”

As the development proceeds, for a year and a half, the researchers have been engaging in preliminary negotiations with companies in different segments to obtain proofs of concept. “We’ve identified prospective customers interested in the enzymes and the possible impact on their profit margins,” Fonseca said. “These contacts help us understand how companies use enzymes and find out how the products should be adjusted. We’re trying to hit on a common solution to meet the needs of several companies.”