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Why Lululemon’s Bio-Fiber Supplier Took Farmer Fight to Capitol Hill

The company helping Lululemon decouple from petroleum-based fabrics took its farmer fight to Washington’s halls of power this week.

Dr. Christophe Schilling, CEO of Geno, formerly known as Genomatica, appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry on Tuesday to outline several measures the U.S. government can take to advance U.S. leadership in biomanufacturing and support American farmers.

“Born and raised in the great state of Michigan, today I’m the founder and CEO of Geno, a bioproducts innovation company on a mission to accelerate the materials transition, creating high-performance ingredients from renewable resources like plants rather than fossil fuels,” Schilling said during the hearing, entitled “Farm Bill 2023: Rural Development and Energy Programs.”

Schilling discussed how the federal government can strengthen its BioPreferred program by enforcing federal purchasing requirements for biobased materials and advocated for the section 9003 loan guarantee program, which is vital to fund capital-intensive projects essential to scale domestic biomanufacturing. All programs Schilling endorsed directly impact advancing U.S. leadership in biomanufacturing, which, in turn, will build new and valuable markets for American agriculture products while supporting strategic and urgent climate action.

“The United States has a golden opportunity to seize the role of global leader in biomanufacturing for generations to come,” Schilling said. “By scaling the market for biobased products, we can build a powerful new economic engine that creates jobs in rural communities and helps American farmers while supplying sustainable products that American consumers increasingly demand. To achieve these goals, it’s essential that the government maintain funding levels for loan guarantees and enforce federal purchasing requirements around biobased products. These measures will also enhance American supply chain transparency and resilience, while reducing reliance on products made overseas. We grow it here and we can make it here, too.”

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Schilling speaking during the “Farm Bill 2023: Rural Development and Energy Programs” hearing.

Geno manufactures plant-based versions of materials using inputs such as corn, which is widely produced across America’s heartland. Geno is provided technology for a $300 million biomanufacturing facility in Iowa by Qore (the joint venture of Cargill and Helm) that will produce 65,000 tons per year of plant-based materials and provide jobs throughout the region.

“As Geno and its partners look to build manufacturing facilities like [the one in Iowa] for additional bioproducts, we view the programs within the energy title of the Farm Bill as providing a critical path to translating U.S. based innovations into leadership in the manufacturing of value-added products from our abundant domestic agricultural feedstocks,” Schilling said.

Geno also plans to build its first solely owned facility in an agriculture-rich region like the Midwest with support from the USDA 9003 loan guarantee program. This program guarantees up to $250 million to “develop, build or retrofit facilities to support new and emerging technologies, and produce advanced biofuels, renewable chemicals and biobased products.” Schilling asked the committee to remove the cap for funding of the 9003 program, given record inflation and the modern cost of construction. He also asked the committee to streamline the program, so it moves at the pace of business; currently, the review process can take up to 18 months to complete—deterring qualified applicants.

“The 9003 loan guarantee program is critically important to companies looking to bridge the gap between developing commercial ready technology to make these bio products and then translating that into establishing a broad-based biomanufacturing infrastructure in this country,” Schilling said. “Not only would commercial products supported by 9003 utilize domestic feedstocks and create well-paying jobs in rural communities but they’ll will allow us to make these ingredients in much more sustainable and transparent manners.”

Geno has closed multiple high-impact deals over the last year to accelerate the commercialization of sustainable materials, with the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tons in upcoming years. Recent milestones include scaling plant-based nylon and a venture with Unilever and Kao to scale plant-based alternatives to palm oil with a 50 percent lower carbon footprint, in addition to its work with Lululemon. It signed a deal with Aquafil to build a demonstration-scale facility to make the largest quantity of 100 percent renewable nylon-6 yet.

“We’ve seen a need for more resilient supply chains [and] our technologies can unlock that,” Schilling said. “We’re just but one company in this industry, and I think you can imagine what the industry could do working together. We think the U.S. is really at a ripe time to build this important industry. We’re ready to get to work to do that.”