By Golgher, D, Rodrigues, R, Kunisawa, V and Campello R.
The Amazon needs help. Climate change and loss of biodiversity have brought together different parties. Individuals, public and private organizations, and philanthropic and non-governmental bodies are working to safeguard one of the world’s most important biomes. Brazil has more biodiversity and more of the Amazon rainforest than any other country. It is a big responsibility. Care with the Amazon is one of the reasons the majority of the population voted to change the government in 2022.
The rainforest has 400 billion, or thirteen percent, of the world’s trees, which support a wide range of animal species. Just one of these trees can have more ant species than the entire United Kingdom, for example, and biome as a whole is home to fourteen percent of the birds, nine percent of the mammals, and eight percent of the amphibians in the tropics. Here, one gram of soil can contain more than 1,000 species of fungus, and together the soil and vegetation store more than 150 billion tons of carbon. The rivers are home to 13 percent of the planet’s freshwater fishes, 58 percent of which are not found anywhere else on the planet. It also supports diverse human populations: there are 410 Indigenous groups that speak 300 different languages. The preservation of the rainforest, a major international responsibility, could also be an opportunity for a mindset development.1
This article highlights how the current circumstances favor the creation of innovative bio-businesses in Brazil. The text bears the lenses not of specialists of the forest (there are many references for this)2, but of a team that has worked on different aspects of biotech-related projects for decades.
The legal Amazon is composed of nine Brazilian states and corresponds to 61 percent of the country’s territory.3 A large area that is diverse in the range of long-standing (and new) problems, the region contains challenges that can be overwhelming. How to preserve a standing forest and promote socioeconomic development in territories that are riddled with their own peculiarities is not an easy task. Several organizations are working hard on this. Table I lists some of them.
* These are just some, there are many others. All of them have available reports and papers on their websites.
The complexities of the northern states of Brazil have been extensively studied, not only by the listed organizations, but by numerous academics and institutions that observe and work in situ.4 They have diagnosed problems and are implementing solutions that aim to promote socioeconomic development, prioritizing the well-being of the local communities and preservation of nature. FAS (Fundação Amazônia Sustentável), a non-governmental organization founded in Manaus in 2008, has published a series of reports that propose sustainable solutions for the value chains related to the fish pirarucu, the plant guaraná, vegetable oils, cocoa, Brazil nut, açai, tourism, and craft.5 The preservation of pirarucu and turtles, for example, illustrate how diverse solutions are needed for the region. While the fish, which can be a source of delicious protein-rich meals and whose skin (which was previously discarded) can be developed into beautiful handbags,6 brings economic benefit for the local communities, the same cannot be said for the preservation of the turtles. The former can form a self-sustainable value chain, the latter has to be heavily subsidized.
The common thread, shown in the reports published by FAS and others, is that the involvement, well-being, and traditional knowledge of the local communities are crucial. Importantly, it is clear that the lack of commitment of the governments (federal, state, and municipal) turns working on shifting the current destructive path to a constructive one into a Sisyphus story.
The new federal government, from day zero, has made its commitment to an agenda that makes climate change and the protection of nature a priority. The environmental activist and politician Marina Silva, a native from the Amazon (Acre State), is Brazil’s Minister of the Environment. Her ministry was renamed the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, with new secretaries added for deforestation, biodiversity, and the bioeconomy. She does not shy away from admitting that the challenges ahead are difficult. Nevertheless, there is room for optimism, with the proposed transversality and desire for more articulation in the new government. The Ministries of Justice and Economy, for instance, are to have environmental units. In addition, there are a growing number of international organizations that want to join the effort to preserve our biodiversity. An analysis of the contributors to the Amazon Fund indicates a plethora of investors, from the governments of Norway and Germany to family offices funding projects in the forest.8,9
Programs and regulations
Brazil was one of the first signatories of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); an international agreement that recognized that States have sovereign rights over the biological resources found in their territories. The CBD has as main objectives: (1) the conservation of biological diversity, (2) the sustainable use of its components, and (3) the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources. The country implemented early on internal legislation establishing obligations seeking to achieve these goals. The current statute (Law # 13,123/2015) established that research and development (R&D) carried out on genetic information of Brazilian biodiversity, including its metabolites, amounts to access to the genetic heritage, and benefit sharing obligations should be applicable to finished products, taking into consideration traditional knowledge.
Unfamiliar with the legislation on access and benefit sharing (ABS), researchers and R&D companies have deemed it a burden, rather than using it as an opportunity to achieve Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) goals. The Nagoya Protocol, a supplementary agreement to the CBD, provides a legal framework seeking to effectively implement CBD’s third objective (“the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources”), allowing enforcement of national legislations abroad. It should also be regarded as leverage, especially after the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) landmark agreement.
In order to promote the sustainable use of biodiversity resources and integrate local and traditional communities and, consequently, foster a bio-economy, the Brazilian government has set agendas. The Bioeconomy Brazil-Sociodiversity Program10 within the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock has the general objective of promoting partnerships between the government, small and family farmers, traditional folks, communities, their enterprises, and the business sector. The aim is to promote and structure productive systems that are (1) based on the sustainable use of socio-biodiversity and extractive resources and (2) the production and use of energy from renewable sources, allowing for their expansion. The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation is responsible for the Brazil-Biotech Initiative, which will configure actions to contribute to the National Policy for Research, Development and Innovation in Biotechnology, in addition to strengthening science, innovation, and technology actions related to the biotechnology sector.
Some governmental programs have been specifically designed for the Amazon region, for instance, Bioeconomy Priority Program and Tax Free Green Zone at the federal level and A Greener Amazon11 at the state level.
Pharma, biotech, and the evolving innovation ecosystem
Norberto Prestes, the president of Brazilian Pharmochemicals Manufacturers Association (ABIQUIFI), has a privileged position because he is often at meetings and participates in, as well as promotes, events that gather players from the pharma and bio-related industries, the government, and the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (Anvisa). A good radar for the ongoing initiatives and activities, he is enthusiastic about the future. According to him, there is an unprecedented convergence of interests from these players that will contribute to fertile grounds for new bio-businesses. There is engagement to create value from the national biodiversity, with innovation and sustainability as guiding principles.
The platform InovafitoBrasil, a partnership between the Centroflora group (private) and Fiocruz (public), was recently launched.13 It aims to unite, give visibility to, and connect innovative projects related to phytotherapies with private investors, industrial partners, and funding agencies. According to Prestes, the plan now is to build a similar platform for technology-based startups, such as biotech startups, so they can have a good head start with appropriate regulatory support. Platforms such as these are not alone in incentivizing and supporting innovation. As published previously, since digital technologies became vogue, there is no lack of incubators, innovation hubs, and centers that have been working to promote new technology-based businesses.14 Many of these have created an Amazon- and/or bio-dedicated program (table II).
Table II- Brazilian organizations with recent specific programs with emphasis on biodiversity and Amazon.
It is impossible to summarize in one table every ongoing Amazon-dedicated program in Brazil; therefore, the purpose of Table II is to give some examples and illustrate a diverse range of initiatives.
CERTI Foundation, founded in 1984 and responsible for the very prolific innovation ecosystem in the southern state of Santa Catarina, has an Institute for the Amazon. Beginning in 2018, they mapped novel technologies, and selected and connected promising ventures to an international hub of investors (partnership of the U.K. government, the Amazon investor coalition, and the partnerships for forests).15
Another interesting program, but with a different twist, has been developed by Emerge, a company founded in 2017. Its specific programs start with established sponsor companies that are interested in innovation. Emerge research patents and scientists on a given topic, filters the technologies that could be the basis for new companies, and, as venture builders, develop new enterprises with the researchers. Its Amazon program, for example, was funded by BRF, Natura, the pharmaceutical companies Aché and Nintx. These business partners were interested in novel ideas that were based on Amazonian bioactive compounds, for the food (BRF), cosmetic (Natura), and pharmaceutical industries (Aché and Nintx). Emerge’s Amazon program mapped 149 technologies, and three were selected to become new companies with seed investment from the program Nativa, Fitofit, and Mangute Ingredients.
Following the successful Emerge Amazônia, the program Emerge Biodiversity was executed in 2022 in partnership with a new group of sponsors Braskem, Ourofino, Boticário, and the recurrent Aché.
Aché is a national pharmaceutical company that has been interested in Brazilian biodiversity for a long time. In 2006, they launched the first herbal medicine entirely developed in the country, Acheflan. This anti-inflammatory medicine is a commercial success, now available in 20 countries around the globe. The company’s continued interest in natural compounds resulted in the creation of BioProspera, a platform dedicated to the screening of new compounds from the biodiversity. To achieve this goal, the company established a partnership with Phytobios, part of the Centroflora group, an enterprise with experience in the prospection of new molecules from the different national biomes. In addition, Aché[yes?] has partnered with Brazil’s National Center for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM),16 a governmental lab that can conduct assays to characterize novel compounds. Today, the company’s pipeline comprises 13 projects, eight of which use Brazilian natural products. A new drug for vitiligo, currently in clinical trials and which, if successful, will aim for the international market.
It was while working on research and development at Aché that three experienced professionals met and conceived of a new venture, Nintx. Nintx was founded in 2021 with what seem to be the right ingredients: sound ideas to solve unmet medical needs, proprietary technology, industry experience, and a first round of venture capital from experienced investors.17 The goal of the company is to isolate and develop new compounds from Brazil’s environment for the treatment of complex diseases. Bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and partnerships are at the core of its business model.
The initiatives described above show that we need improvements in the network of peers. Innovation will require larger investments, and industry leaders will need to develop long-term strategies. High-risk projects, as was the Xyllella fastidiosa genome project,18 require bold investments. This project is a great example of a network of partners working on a common goal, a mixture of bold leadership, financing, collaboration and transparency.
From our analysis of the patent applications filed before the Brazilian Patent Office (searched with the keywords biotechnology, biology, cosmetics, pharmaceutical, phytotherapics, vegetal extracts, biomimetism, enzyme, and human health), it is not news that the majority are from governmental research institutions, more than 50% are abandoned or not granted, and only a minority aim for the international market and/or are assigned to a private company.
Yet, there is so much to accomplish. History has shown that natural compounds or their derivatives have had an extremely important role in the development of medicines to treat several of the major diseases that affect our society.19 Besides being a major source of complex chemical scaffolds, the observation of nature has proven to be an inspiration in the creation and development of innovation in several industries, from architecture to textiles and fashion—industries that are major polluters and may greatly benefit from a different multidisciplinary perspective; from the termites nest inspired building in Zimbabwe20 that has an all-natural, extremely efficient cooling system to Stella McCartney’s leather and silk21 to a living cement22.
As well-stated in the very complete report Amazon 202123:
“For humanity to fully realize the potential of the most biodiverse forest in the world, it is essential to reduce the gap between the Amazon and the global scientific and technological innovation frontier.”
It is very fortunate that some are leading the way. The world-renowned Carlos Nobre,24 a long-standing environmentalist and researcher, has devised the Amazon 4.025 and is working on the Amazon Institute of Technology, a pan-Amazonian Research Institute partnered with MIT, USP, and Instituto Arapyaú. The Vale Technological Institute (ITV), under the leadership of its scientific director, Guilherme Corrêa De Oliveira, has worked non-stop, with an international laboratory in Belém, to bring genomics and bioinformatics to the forefront of our bioeconomy.26
Our many thanks to the interviewees, Cássio Maldonado (UFMG), Guilherme Corrêa De Oliveira (ITV), Luciano Queiroz (Emerge), the three founders from Nintx Cristiano Guimarães, Miller Freitas and Stephani Saverio, Norberto Prestes (ABIQUIFI), Renato Miani (Sanrisil) and Tomas Rosenfeld (University of Freiburg).
1. https://www.theamazonwewant.org/amazon-assessment-report-2021/, access on 2.6.2023.
2. https://www.theamazonwewant.org/amazon-assessment-report-2021/; https://amazonia2030.org.br/o-projeto/; https://concertacaoamazonia.com.br/en/estudos/bioeconomia-da-sociobiodiversidade-no-estado-do-para/, access on 2.6.2023.
3. The Legal Amazon is formed by the states of Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, Tocantins and Mato Grosso, and also by the municipalities of the state of Maranhão. Source: https://www.ibge.gov.br/, access on 2.6.2023.
4. https://www.theamazonwewant.org/amazon-assessment-report-2021/; https://amazonia2030.org.br/o-projeto/; https://concertacaoamazonia.com.br/en/estudos/bioeconomia-da-sociobiodiversidade-no-estado-do-para/, access on 2.6.2023.
5. Reports available at: https://fas-amazonia.org/tipo_publicacao/cadeias-produtivas/, access on 2.6.2023.
6. https://www.osklen.com/collection/usa-bags, access on 2.6.2023.
8. Information on the contributors of the Amazon Fund is available at https://www.bndes.gov.br/wps/portal/site/home/financiamento/produto/fundo-amazonia access on 2.6.2023.
9. The study by Fundação Certi, Biofin, PNUD and the Ministry of Economy points to 52 financing mechanisms is a good source of information on financing mechanisms for the bioeconomy https://info.certi.org.br/lp-financiamento-bioeconomia, access on 2.6.2023.
10. Free translation: Bioeconomia Brasil – Sociobiodiversidade Program.
11. Free translation: program’s name Amazonas Mais Verde.
12. The BrBio is an informative publication usually launched at the Brazilian Pavilion at the Bio International conferences. Available at https://biominas.org.br/catalogos/materiais/, access on 3.2.2023.
13. https://inovafitobrasil.com.br/, access on 6.2.2023.
14. https://bioengineeringcommunity.nature.com/posts/40607-breaking-through-asphalt, access on 6.2.2023.
15. https://hubglobal.jornadaamazonia.org.br/, access on 6.2.2023.
16. CNPEM is one of the 69 Emprapii units https://embrapii.org.br/en/unidades-embrapii/. Embrapii is short for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa e Inovação Industrial (Brazilian company for industrial research and innovation). These units have been valuable in partnering with companies from different areas that want to develop new products/processes.
17. Pitanga Redux fund, Candido Bracher and Eduardo Vassimon (Itaú BBA), Guilherme Leal and Pedro Passos (Natura & Co) and Mr Andersen, partner of the Centroflora Group. Information from https://nintx.com.br/ access on 2.5.2023.
18. https://www.nature.com/articles/35018003, access on 2.5.2023
19. Atanasov, AG et al. 2021. Nature, 20 :200.
20. Hwang et al. 2015. International Journal of Nanomedicine, 10:5701.
22. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-design-bacteria-based-living-concrete-18094002, access on 2.5.2023.
23. https://www.theamazonwewant.org/amazon-assessment-report-2021/, access on 2.5.2023
25. https://amazonia4.org/institucional/, access on 2.7.2023.
26. https://valor.globo.com/empresas/noticia/2022/06/08/vale-aposta-em-biotecnologia-na-amazonia.ghtml, access on 2.7.2023.