Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Startups are competing to use biosynthesis to produce the cannabinoids found in different strains of cannabis.

Why it matters: The market for various types of CBD — a non-psychoactive component in cannabis — for medical and nutraceutical purposes is growing rapidly, and biosynthesis promises a cheaper and more controllable method of production than growing plants.

By the numbers: According to a recent research note from Raymond James, the present size of the global cannabinoid biosynthesis market opportunity is around $40 billion.

  • A number of startups are moving into the biosynthesized cannabinoid space, which Raymond James analyst Rahul Sarugaser has written is "synthetic biology's next killer app."

Background: The conventional method of obtaining cannabinoids like CBD involves cultivating cannabis plants that contain the strain wanted, and then extracting the desired chemicals.

  • Because some of the most in-demand cannabinoids occur in very low concentrations in nature, a lot of plant matter is needed, which means production costs can be higher than $50,000/kg.
  • Growing cannabis can be "backbreaking work," notes Dennis O'Neill, the chief investment officer of the biosynthesis startup Biomedican, and regulatory issues mean that whole cannabis crops need to be destroyed if levels of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — are too high.

How it works: In biosynthesis, microbes like yeast and bacteria are engineered to produce large quantities of a single cannabinoid in a fermentation process that works similarly to beer brewing.

  • As a result, biosynthesis companies will be able to produce expensive cannabinoids at a much lower price and without fears of contamination.
  • "We can harvest every day, as opposed to a plant that requires 55 days to grow," says O'Neill.

Flashback: A number of the companies involved in biosynthesis got their start years ago trying to use a similar process to produce advanced biofuels.

  • Those efforts never really bore fruit, in large part because it was far too difficult to compete on price with cheap oil.
  • That looks to be less of a problem with expensive cannabinoids.

What to watch: Whether biosynthesis companies are able to successfully move from demo-scale efforts, like the one announced last week by Berkeley-based Demetrix, to full-scale production.

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