Could a synthetically produced imitation of rhino horn undermine the black market in poached horn, and help save the rhino? That’s the intriguing proposition behind Pembient, a San Francisco-based biotech start-up, which plans to bio-engineer a faux rhino horn that’s genetically indistinguishable from the real thing, and sell it to Asian consumers at prices below the black market price for natural horn. We spoke to Pembient co-founder and CEO Matthew Markus about these plans:
What prompted your interest in bioengineering a synthetic version of rhino horn?
Rhino poaching seems to come in waves, with a previous crisis ebbing in the early 1990s. Around that time, I was studying computer science and happened to read about the issue. I thought it would be neat if rhino horn could be copied like software. Unfortunately, that was an impossible dream at the time.
Recently, the cost of reading and writing DNA has dropped and other technologies, such as 3D printing, have matured. This is why, within the last couple of years, lab-grown leather (Modern Meadow), cow-free milk (Muufri), chicken-free egg whites (Clara Foods), and civet-free coffee (Afineur) have all started to emerge. I love animals, and I view our undertaking as a natural extension of this movement to remove them from the food/goods chain.
Can you briefly explain the technology involved?
Our desire is to produce bioidentical rhino horn of exceptional purity for our clients. Thus, we’re willing to invest in a variety of different technologies. Our most promising approach to date is a biochemical one in which the various constituents of rhino horn are obtained and isolated from different sources. They’re then combined into a final product that is spectrographically and genetically similar to rhino horn. This is how we built our first prototype powder that I took to Vietnam. We’re constantly refining and updating our technology, and each generation of powder that we produce is better than the last.
What stage of research and development are you at?
We are moving from building prototype powders to creating an initial product. At the same time, we are experimenting with how to mould our powders into larger forms, up to and including a full horn. We’re part of the new IndieBio biotech accelerator in San Francisco, so we will be showcasing our progress at IndieBio’s demo day in mid-June.
We plan on selling our first product in the Fall of 2015.
Presumably this isn’t a cheap process. Do you have a ballpark estimate of what the product might cost the consumer?
Yes, what we’re doing isn’t inexpensive. We feel it is premature to discuss price; however, we’re conscious of the need to provide our products at attainable price points.
Could you produce large quantities?
We only invest in sustainable technologies that are capable of working at scale.
What makes you think the consumer in China, Vietnam, etc, would accept a synthetic product as an alternative to natural rhino horn?
We surveyed users of rhino horn in Vietnam and found that 45 per cent of them would accept using rhino horn made from a lab. In comparison, only 15 per cent said they would use water buffalo horn, the official substitute for rhino horn. Additional in-depth interviews revealed that rhino horn users thought we would be able to capture between 60 per cent to 90 per cent of the essence of the animal using our techniques.
There is obviously a group of people who would like to continue the tradition of using rhino horn without engaging in illegal or environmentally damaging activities. We can assist them in moving away from the wild product. In that regard, I believe we form part of a realistic solution to the poaching crisis along with existing conservation efforts. As we like to say, ‘Animals are precious. Traditions are important. We’re bioengineering rhino horn to help restore harmony between the two.’
Do you anticipate any profits going into conservation?
Yes, we plan on allocating a portion of our revenue to anti-poaching and anti-poverty programs in Africa and elsewhere.
Doesn’t marketing a product with negligible clinical efficacy undermine efforts to educate Asian consumers that rhino horn is ineffective?
The ‘Rhino Horn is Not Medicine’ campaign is perhaps the worst demand reduction campaign ever conceived. First, it is based on a lie. The only randomized double-blind trial of rhino horn found that it did reduce fever in children. Surprisingly, this finding suggests that rhino horn might actually be superior to Western medicine since acetaminophen is difficult to safely dose in children and aspirin is linked to Reye’s syndrome. Second, in trying to negate over 2,000 years of tradition, the message becomes: ‘Your ancestors were stupid.’ Of course, this kind of message isn’t going to go over very well in cultures that practice ancestor worship. As far as we’re concerned, the ‘Rhino Horn is Not Medicine’ campaign is self-undermining.
Rhino horn is often bought and gifted as a high value status symbol. Won’t these customers still aspire to the natural, premium product in preference to a cheaper synthetic alternative?
If you go back 1,000 or 2,000 years, the natural world was clean and unspoiled. Now, unfortunately, it is in a polluted state. The wild rhino, by extension, is similarly polluted. Furthermore, all poached horn is of dubious provenance. In a world in which infant formula from China contains melamine, who knows what black market horn contains. We’ve found large amounts of arsenic in the horns we’ve tested. Pembient horn is insanely pure and made in the USA.
Won’t a legal trade in synthetic rhino horn act as a smokescreen for illegal trade in the natural horn? Would powdered synthetic rhino horn be forensically distinguishable from natural horn? If not, couldn’t a trafficker caught with powdered horn simply claim it was synthetic?
To the extent nation states can no longer forensically distinguish Pembient horn from wild horn, I think we’ve won. That’s because we’ll be the ultimate cutting agent. Typically, a cutting agent is easy to spot or, if it is not, it is of equal value to the product being cut. That’s the issue with laundering right now. You put in a little legal product and then move a whole bunch of illegal product. What happens when traffickers can put in a more attainable, undetectable cutting agent? They’ll start to use more and more of it. The dynamics should then flip with a lot of cutting agent being used to move a little illegal product. Eventually, the incentive for traffickers to run an expensive, illegal supply chain from South Africa to Vietnam will completely disappear since they can simply pass off Pembient horn as wild horn.
Won’t providing a cheaper product simply create a larger market for rhino horn?
When a market wants to grow but it cannot, prices grow instead. With wildlife, we’ve seen that this results in a ‘supply-and-demand extinction vortex.’ That is, as rhinos dwindle, poaching becomes ever more lucrative. There are two ways out of such a trap: either grow the market with alternative supply or destroy the market. We believe that only the former is achievable in the near term.