Photo by Christian Ove Carlsson

Building a community on fermentation

Tuesday 01 Sep 20
by Morten Andersen


John Woodley
DTU Chemical Engineering
+45 45 25 28 85

The FBM Initiative

Backed by a donation from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the FBM (Fermentation Based Biomanufacturing) initiative is scheduled to run for the coming five years. It will continue for another two years after that, as the initiative includes a PhD programme—and the PhD students starting towards the end of the five-year period will of course be able to complete their projects, normally running for three years.

The FBM industry partners are Bioneer, Chr. Hansen, AGC Bio- logics, Dupont, Glycom, Novo Nordisk, Novozymes, and Xelia. The companies take part in teaching and offer internships to master students.
The interest in Fermentation Based Biomanufacturing is on the rise in chemical, pharmaceutical and biotech industries. A new cross-departmental effort at DTU will deliver candidates and PhDs with the exact profile required.

In an industrial context, fermentation is the manufacture by any of a variety of organisms—bacteria, yeasts, fungi, cell cultures—of desired products, which could be chemicals, enzymes, proteins, etc. Spanning across three departments at DTU, a research-based programme takes education and training in Fermentation Based Biomanufacturing (FBM) to a new level. The programme is designed to create candidates with both a deep knowledge of biology, deep knowledge on scaling up, pilot operations and strong mathematical and programming skills.

“We are fulfilling a long-standing wish from industry. Traditionally, a university graduate would either be keen on biotechnology or on chemical engineering. In FBM you need to have an understanding of both worlds. This is what we offer,” explains Professor John Woodley, DTU Chemical Engineering.

The FBM education is based on cutting-edge research covering all aspects of fermentation, e.g. fundamental physiology of production organisms, metabolic engineering, scale-up processes, and downstream processing.

Overall coordination lies with DTU Bioengineering, while DTU Chemical Engineering and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability are the two other partners.

Industry standard level of containment

Each year at DTU Chemical Engineering, two PhD students will be hired at FBM. The first three are already onboard, while the hiring process for the next ones is ongoing. Further, some 15-20 students from the Departments will do their master projects under the FBM umbrella every year.

The research facilities at DTU Chemical Engineering play a key role in the programme.

We already have excellent pilot plant facilities, and with the upcoming inauguration of the new Building 228A, these facilities will be upgraded further. Not least a new fermentation plant with 300 L fermenter (around 200 L working volume) production capacity will allow us to do experiments at a useful scale en route to industry,” says John Woodley, noting that the pilot facility will be classified as ‘GMO 1’––the standard containment level in Danish industry.

“Importantly, we will not just have the equipment itself, but mirror all components digitally. These ‘Digital Twins’ will have a dual function. They will be important in our teaching, and also contribute to research projects, improving our understanding of what is going on during the fermentation and downstream operations.”

Lifelong learning in digital formats

The new initiative can already claim great interest—no less than 120 students signed up for the first of the new master’s courses during the fall semester of 2019.

“To see this level of interest is really great. It is also quite demanding in terms of the amount of teaching we have to deliver—not least since the rapid development in fermentation-based biomanufacturing means that we can rarely use all the con-tent from past years’ courses. Still, this is also what is so thrilling about working in this field,” John Woodley comments.

The FBM initiative involves several training programmes.

“The concept of lifelong learning is highly relevant to FBM, as techno- logy and fundamental understanding progress so rapidly. Therefore, it is a natural part of our activity to provide courses for industry staff and other candidates. Some of these courses will be offered in digital formats, and we plan to extend these options further,” says John Woodley.

Expansion in digitalization and downstream processing

The high level of activity has already prompted the involved DTU departments to hire additional scientific staff. At DTU Chemical Engineering, Assistant Professor Helena Junicke has become faculty member, while a faculty member at professorial level is due to be recruited in 2020.

“Also, we plan to hire new post-docs to assist us in research, not least with a focus on digitalization and downstream processing,” John Woodley informs.

With the FBM initiative, industry is well on track to get its wish granted for a new type of candidates and PhDs with both biological and chemical engineering skills.

“Maybe even more important is the fact that the field has become stronger and more visible here at DTU,” John Woodley notes. “The three departments involved each have their strongholds, and by getting closely aligned in this way, we are able to grow a healthy community on fermentation based biomanufacturing—something also highly appreciated by our industry partners.”

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