Special-Edition Viewpoints Address The Pandemic Crisis

In the wake of the covid-19 pandemic, pathways and opportunities in technology commercialization are undergoing dramatic transformation on many fronts. In an effort to address Explorer clients' urgent need to understand both the near- and longer-term impacts, we are providing a special set of analyses about the pandemic's impact on technology commercialization that will replace the standard May and June 2020 Viewpoints publications. (Read the full announcement about these special analyses.)

  • The May 2020 documents identify a wide range of key forces that will likely have a major influence on prospects for six consequential technology domains, imagining a plausible range of alternative outcomes that these forces could have during the coming five to ten years. These outcomes serve as building blocks for creating effective responses to the pandemic.
  • The June 2020 documents will provide a scenarios-based analysis for each of the six technology domains, with emphasis on how the key uncertain forces might interact and influence commercialization pathways in alternative postpandemic futures.

Because the developments we describe affect multiple technologies, we have organized our standard Technology Areas into six technology domains. We encourage clients to engage with all six special-edition Viewpoints to gain a broad view of potential changes and opportunities in technology commercialization. Please contact us if you do not already have access to all six technology domains, and we will be happy to provide you with the remaining articles in the collection.

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About This Technology

Biopolymers are polymers that are composed of repeating units of biological origin. In nature, such biopolymers are usually made of repeating units of saccharides, nucleotides, or amino acids. Aside from extracting biopolymers directly from biomass (for example, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and proteins from cellulose, DNA, and collagen, respectively), scientists have developed ways to produce biopolymers (for example, polylactic acid) from biobased monomers using conventional chemical processes and to produce biopolymers directly in microorganisms or genetically modified organisms (for example, polyhydroxyalkanoates). The molecular backbone of such polymers may contain various additional chemical side chains that contribute to the polymer's functional characteristics.

Humans are making use of biopolymers for a variety of applications, including food, furniture, and clothing. In the past 25 years, interest in sustainable products has driven the development of new synthesis routes for the production of biopolymers such as polylactic acid from renewable feedstocks. Biopolymers must compete with existing petroleum-derived polymers not only in their functional properties but also in price. The economic argument for switching away from petroleum-based products is weaker when oil prices are low. Dramatic decreases in oil prices are reducing the cost of many petroleum-based polymers and are increasing the cost advantages these polymers have over most biopolymers. However, the ethos of renewable and sustainable processing is becoming central to many organizations. Therefore, biopolymers may still be a viable alternative to petroleum-based products at times of low oil prices. These key drivers act as a stimulus for R&D activity in microbiology, genetic engineering, plant sciences, fermentation, and purification technologies.

Natural biopolymers are also becoming established as materials with diverse applications. For example, spider silk has antimicrobial and other desirable properties—such as elasticity, strength, and biocompatibility—that suit applications in medical textiles, medical devices, regenerative medicine, cosmetics and personal-care products, clothing, and military equipment. Chitosan is another readily available biopolymer that has many end uses, from bulk products to pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. Cellulose is the latest addition to the list of natural biopolymers that researchers turn into novel materials—including nanocellulose and cellulose foam—that find use in a wide range of applications, from packaging, construction, and electronics to medical products and cosmetics. Novel fibers that show enhanced physical properties such as increased resilience and flexibility will have great potential for use in a broad range of end-user applications. Biopolymers' potential for new business opportunities is becoming a key driver of research activity and investor interest. Manufacturers of biopolymers will likely form partnerships with downstream products' manufacturers to commercialize their biopolymers. Other opportunity areas include industrial, medical, food, consumer-products, and pharmaceutical applications.

Nucleic-acid-based materials are increasingly finding use in a variety of applications, including drug delivery, agriculture, nanoelectronics, biocomputing, and biosensors. Although the technology remains mostly laboratory based, companies will need to monitor advances in the technology—such as CRISPR—that allow scientists to overcome the lack of fundamental knowledge. These advances may improve the pace of development and reduce the time frame in which opportunities can materialize and commercialization can occur.