Rhino horn made in lab could prevent slaughter of rhinos

26 Jun 2015

The US$20bn black market for wildlife like rhinos could be undermined thanks to a breakthrough by a biotech start-up called Pembient, which has bio-engineered a rhino horn that could act as an alternative to ones poached in the wild.

Pembient is a San Francisco-based biotech company that has just joined SOSventures’ IndieBio accelerator aimed at early-stage biology start-ups. SOSventures is a US$200m venture capital firm headed by Sean O’Sullivan.

Figures published by South Africa show that 1,215 rhinos were poached there in 2014, a loss of 4pc of that country’s rhino population.

Pembient is dedicated to replacing the US$20bn wildlife trade with bio-engineered alternatives to rhino horn and elephant ivory that will be priced below the levels that induce poaching.

True to science


The Rhino horn grown in the lab by bio-engineering start-up Pembient

Rhino horn is in particular demand in geographies like Asia where it is believed to have powerful medicinal qualities. It is used as a cooling agent but also has a status and allure similar to ivory.

A survey of consumers of these goods found that 45pc would accept using the rhino horn made in a lab.

“We are using biotechnology to create these products cheaply so that people can use them without harming wildlife,” Pembient’s CEO Matthew Markus explained.

He said that the rhino horn was produced using a mishmash of technologies, from tissue engineering to synthetic biology and tools like 3D printing.

“At a biotechnical level we aggregate the components and create a powder slurry that is used as an ink, a kind of protein in bulk.”

Markus, who was originally a computer scientist before going back to college to study biology, felt that DNA could be sequenced and managed just like software.

“It is now feasible to create biological objects outside of animals.”

He said the bio-engineered mass consists of both DNA, proteins and composites.

“We can use this to create hard materials such as a nail, a tooth or ivory, but we are not a stem cell company, we can’t do everything.”

He said the plan is to undermine the black market for rhino horn.

“If you Google a patent search for rhinoceros horn you will find that it ends up in lots of products like jewellery, beer and medicine.”

He said one of Pembient’s go-to-market strategies is to go to market as a branded ingredient that could replace real rhino horn.

“We are looking at a model similar to Gortex. Gortex doesn’t make the jackets but makes the technology. Our aim is to find partners in the region and sell the ingredients.”

Production of the bio-engineered rhino horn will take place in the US and Europe where there are high-quality regulatory environments that are trusted by buyers in Asian markets over domestically-produced alternatives.

“We are really focused on new technologies that can replace society’s dependence on animals. For example, it is possible to produce synthetic milk using synthetic engineering.

“We are sticking true to the science and we are focused on preventing the harming of wildlife by jumping ahead into the future and getting materials from a lab rather than messing with the environment.”

Markus said that the company is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to raise US$16,900 to sequence the rhino genome.

Disclaimer: SOSventures is an investor in Silicon Republic

Rhino image at top via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years