"Our goal as LIVZYM is to contribute to the widespread use of enzymes in the industrial field by growing the market in our geography with a local language, as the first biotechnological enterprise in the enzyme field. With the essential capacity boost and infrastructural investments, we aim to supply significant part of the enzymes needed by Turkey first, and then by our region.”
Dr. Serdar Uysal
LIVZYM, the first and only biotechnology R&D industrial enzyme factory in Turkey, is a company that focuses on sustainable solutions in food production, the vital importance of which has been better understood during the Covid-19 pandemic. Founded in 2014 by Serdar Uysal, who carried out scientific studies in distinguished universities of the USA for 13 years after completing his undergraduate education in Turkey, the company aims to reduce the foreign dependency of Turkey in the enzyme sector, which has reached a volume of 10 billion dollars in the world.
We had the chance to talk to Dr. Serdar Uysal, Founding General Manager of LIVZYM Biotechnology, about the future of food, biotechnology, the enzyme sector, and the company's goals.
Mr. Uysal, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself so we can get to know more about you?
I am originally from Odemis, a town of Izmir. But, I was actually born in Kars, a city where my father was deployed as a military serviceman at the time. So, I attended primary school in 3 different locations due to my father’s service. I have always loved reading since I was a child. It has always been exciting for me to understand the nature of existence and earth, to discover our journey on the planet Earth as the mankind. I was nearly equally interested in social and basic sciences. Although I built my career on molecular biology and biochemistry, I was particularly interested in philosophy, anthropology and mystical traditions as well. If you go ahead and start a talk about Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Wittgenstein, we can talk with you about them hours and hours.
It may be because of passion about reading that I had a thriving life as a student at school. Having completed my Master’s Degree at ITU, I had the chance to carry out scientific studies at distinguished universities in the USA for 13 years. My first stop was MIT. Then, I completed my Ph.D at the University of Chicago, after which I studied for a postdoctoral degree at Harvard for six years.
In that period, I focused on the subject of “Antibody production through synthetic methods and determining the structures of proteins in atomic resolution”. Antibody production is a technology that finds applications for different diseases and cancer in particular. However, during my studies, I began to take an interest in other fields as well. So, I strived to better and improve myself in the subjects such as protein production and purification via recombinant ways, including the proteins, vaccines, and enzymes as well. Currently, I continue to serve as the Vice Director of the Life Sciences and Biotechnology Institute at Bezmialem Vakif University, and as the Founder CEO at LIVZYM Biotechnologies.
You are also one of the founders of the Life Sciences and Biotechnology Institute at Bezmialem University. What made you establish the institute and what does the university mean in your career?
My decision to return to my homeland is one of the landmarks in my life. I would like to mention once again that I am so grateful to my dear friends who encouraged me in taking this decision and I will always remember them with praise.
I returned to the country in 2014 to lead the reverse brain drain with a drive from the support of the people around me and I focused on the establishment of the Biotechnology Institute within Bezmialem Vakif University.
Under the auspices of our Chairman of the Board of Trustees and our Rector and with their strong support in this respect, we managed to found an institute where we can truly reflect the practices of successful examples in the world. We have the laboratories we built with an investment of over ₺40 million funded by our university, where 10 academic researchers who studied at the world’s leading universities such as MIT, Stanford and Johns Hopkins are employed. In this way, we managed to import valuable people with a good command of biotechnology, from abroad to our country.
So, you founded the first and only Biotechnology R&D factory in the Middle East and Africa. What can you tell us about the purpose and story behind the foundation of LIVZYM Biotechnologies?
My mind had already been occupied with the questions, “What can be produced biotechnologically in Turkey, what is actually needed in this field and how can I contribute to my country?”, ever since the years of doctoral studies. I noticed in the research I conducted in the following years within the framework of these questions, that Turkey imported 150 million dollar worth of industrial enzymes, approximately. The enzyme market, which is needed by almost every industry and sector, has a share of 2 billion dollars regionally and 10 billion dollars globally. On the other hand, our country imports all of what it needs. There is no industrial enzyme producer across the region from North Africa all the way to Russia. We came up with an idea to found a biotechnology factory capable of producing the enzymes –which we import- using the national and domestic resources, in an effort to reduce the dependence on foreign resources in this field.
No sooner than had I returned to Turkey in 2014, I founded LIVZYM -which was another dream of mine- with a concept of technology start-up, concurrently with the institute, as well.
Currently, our central office in Beykoz carries on R&D activities in laboratory and pilot scales, while our factory at the Istanbul Leather Organized Industrial Zone in Tuzla carries out enzyme production operations on industrial scale.
We created a team that reflects the spirit of technology start-up, by bringing together our R&D team mainly composed of our colleagues specialised in the field of molecular biology and chemical engineering, with the names who have a remarkable management and production experience in their fields. It is a truly pleasing experience to work with this team driven by the competence introduced into our country by our line of business, not to mention the economical aspect of this enterprise.
In which sectors is biotechnology required the most? In which areas is the enzyme technology mostly used?
As you know; the future of food and agriculture has become of critical importance upon the outbreak of COVID-19. It is predicted that the world population will reach 10 billion in 2050. Sustainable solutions are needed to meet the food needs of the growing population in the future. Biotechnology stands out as a driving force that will shape the future, owing to its transformative power in a number of areas from food to the industrial production, as it also involves several sectors.
So, the importance and necessity of industrial enzymes in our lives become more evident day by day. Used as technological by-products in various sectors, the enzymes are more eco-friendly and easy-to-apply alternatives, compared to their equivalents, thanks to their biochemical properties. Microorganisms required for enzyme production are made ready for industrial production by means of modern molecular biotechnological methods. The enzymes are used mostly in food sector, e.g. in starch, bakery, dairy, brewing and fruit juice industries. It is also used in many areas such as textile, leather, paper, feed/fodder industries, biofuel production, personal care sector and detergent industry in particular. As LIVZYM, we set it as the top priority, to ensure food and feed safety in our production strategies.
One of the most important benefits of enzymes is that they contribute to the sustainability of the world owing to the solutions they offer in the field of food and agriculture. In addition, it increases the speed of production and efficiency in the sectors using these enzymes, and ensures that fresh water resources are preserved. As it replaces the chemical catalysts previously used for this treatment, it reduces the carbon emissions and saves water and energy. It protects both the environment and human health as it enables production with zero waste. To give an example, while the waste water discharged by the facilities that use chemicals to bleach the denim poisons the nature, the waste water of the facilities that do the same job with enzymes makes a good home for the fish. In other words, it is a green technology which is absolutely sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Currently, there are some large-scale companies around the world, which operate in the field of biotechnology. Our goal as LIVZYM is to contribute to the widespread use of enzymes in the industrial field by growing the market in our geography with a local language, as the first biotechnological enterprise in the enzyme field. With the essential capacity boost and infrastructural investments, we aim to supply significant part of the enzymes needed by Turkey first, and then by our region.
So, you quit your education overseas and returned to Turkey. What should be done to encourage a reverse brain drain to Turkey? How will that contribute to our country?
As I mentioned earlier, when I was in the USA, I always dreamt of “establishing a biotechnology company capable of producing the enzymes –which we import- using the national and domestic resources.”, relying on the question “How can I contribute to my country, based on my knowledge and experience in biotechnology?”
However, I have to make it clear that my dream consisted of two phases. It was a must for the company I planned to establish that it should be equipped with the appropriate human resources, if it is to be successful and destined to survive. That’s why I returned to my country with the dream and goal of “realizing the two projects consisting of the establishment of a biotechnology company and a biotechnology institute, which would proceed simultaneously”.
I remember asking myself frequently as I sometimes sipped my coffee at Harvard’s Longwood campus: “Why wouldn’t we, too, establish an institute in Turkey, like MIT Whitehead in the USA, Karolinska in Sweden, Max Plank in Germany or Weizmann in Israel?“ These institutes that I have referred here are the leading research organizations that carry out advanced studies and get certain privileges, under the auspices of the most visionary universities in their individual countries.
I believe that, as the number of institutes increases in our country, like the one we established under the roof of Bezmialem Vakif University and our initiatives such as LIVZYM prove to be successful, it will be easier for our human resources overseas to return to the country.
So, you claim that you will decrease 100% dependence on foreign resources for the enzymes needed by our country, with the factory you put into service. How will that contribute to our country? What do you think should be done to be more effective in this respect?
Unfortunately, the export price per kilogram in our country is well below what is desired: “$1,23 as of the end of 2019.” In order to break our current production and export cycle, it will be required to encourage and support the initiatives in the innovative sectors that create added value.
There are successful examples before us. Thanks to the appropriate support given to the Defence Industry, our average export income per kilogram is $62 in this sector.
I sincerely believe that a success story, which is similar to the added value created in the defence industry 50 times higher than the average of our country, can be achieved in the field of biotechnology, as well.
I would like to bring another example to your attention, from a different viewpoint. Denmark’s population is 5.8 million only. However, Denmark managed to create multiple companies operating in this field, which are worth over tens of billions of dollars, thanks to its strategy prioritising the growth in biotechnology sector.
LIVZYM broke new ground by realizing the production of enzyme, one of the most challenging applications of biotechnology, in Turkey. In the field of enzymes; we managed to accomplish all of the stages in “R&D, investment financing, production in industrial scale and selling to the market”. So, we aim to share with our country, what we have learned so far and grow together with other stakeholders, as part of this process.
However, there are still lots of work to do. For the development of the biotechnology ecosystem in our country, it is very important to update all the relevant legislation, particularly the Biosafety Law No. 5977, in a way to clear the way and make things easier for the sector. The practices such as providing the companies -included in the biotechnology ecosystem and creating high added value- with special technological investment incentives, assignment of specific OIZ for biotechnology and land allocation for use for a period of 40-50 years, will pave the way for the industry.
What sort of contributions do you think the merger of technology and agriculture will make to the countries?
The scientist Susan Hockfield who is the very first female rector of the worldwide known MIT has a book which I love so much. I think the title of the book is “The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution?” Perhaps the best answer to this question is given in this study. Hockfield points out that the humanity has faced increasingly greater difficulties in the supply of energy, water and food due to the increase in world population. She describes the industrial biotechnology, which is achieved by blending the findings in biology with the engineering, as the course of action that should be embraced by the humanity in order to overcome these difficulties.
Reaching a volume of $315 billion globally, industrial biotechnology is appealing not only for the share of wealth it delivers, but also for other benefits it has to offer. That’s because the industrial biotechnology produces sustainable solutions which are both more efficient and capable of maintaining environmental balances in energy, water and food supply.
If our country can catch up with this revolutionary global change, we will become economically independent. We will become stronger in ensuring the security of our food supply which is strategically important. No doubt that the way to catch this transformation in a timely manner is through strong R&D activities.
The success achieved by LIVZYM in industrial production based on its R&D activities of more than 6 years (the very first invoice was issued 6 years and 4 days after its establishment) relies on very good lessons to be taken by other enterprises aiming at a production with a high technological added value.
We are a strong country, home to a population of 84 million, with an exceptional background, geographical and cultural wealth. Thanks to this experience, I have full faith in us that we will be able to carry out the organization required to transform our economy into a structure that produces outcomes with a high added value.
As a scientist, what advice can you give to the young people of our country?
If I would give them any advice towards a goal, I would firstly recommend that they make sure whether they will be passionately and enthusiastically attached to that particular goal. If not supported by proper passionate feelings, chances are the efforts put into this way will fail. It will never be possible to master on any subject without working days and nights for at least 15 years. Without a production, it is very difficult to get rich in every sense. Frankly, I would advise the young brothers and sisters simply to discover their passions in life.
How is LIVZYM doing right now? Do you have any goals and projects you plan to do? Could you tell us about them?
At present, we focused all our energy on LIVZYM’s successful progress and national enzyme production. We expect that LIVZYM will reach a production capacity which is equivalent to that of PETKIM or TUPRAS in its field in a period of 5 to 10 years. As a child who grew up in this land, I actually have a bigger dream, in which new LIVZYMs emerge from the way paved by LIVZYM; and eventually the industrial biotechnology ecosystem further develops in our country, in a way it much deserves.