Biotech and 3-D Printing Could Make Rhino Poaching Pointless

Photo: iStockphoto

Poaching is destroying the rhino population. The Western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011, and all five remaining rhino species are either listed as threatened or critically endangered. Yet it continues—in spite of the damage to the rhino population, in spite of the risks to poachers—because demand for rhino horn is huge.

Rhino horn is thought in some cultures as a cure-all and an aphrodisiac; demand has been booming, particularly in Vietnam, where it’s both considered a cure for cancer and as the millionaire’s protection against the negative health effects of alcohol consumption. It fetches some US $300,000 per horn. Higher penalties for poaching and greater enforcement have had little impact to date, according to statistics gathered by the organization Save the Rhino.

But what if there were a sustainably produced, animal free rhino horn indistinguishable from real rhino horn—not just by look and feel, but even in lab tests, like spectroscopy, and DNA analysis. Could that faux rhino flood the market, and drive the poachers out of business?

That’s the concept behind Pembient, a biotech startup that was part of the first class of startups to graduate last week from the San Francisco branch of IndieBio, an accelerator started by SOSVentures—the same company that’s behind hardware accelerator Hax.

“We can meet the demand for horns at one-eighth the black-market price,” says Pembient CEO Matthew Markus. “We’ll make money; the poaching syndicates won’t.”

Pembient’s process, Markus explained briefly, involves running synthetic keratin through chemical reactions to turn it into the specific type of keratin protein that makes up natural rhino horn. The company adds rhino DNA to the mix, and then turns it into a keratin “ink” that’s compatible with a 3-D printer. Finally, Pembient “grows” the horn.

Markus expects the first products that use this synthetic rhino horn to reach the market in Beijing later this year. One such product under development: a rhino beer. What the company calls “essence of rhino horn” will also be used in other beverages, skin care products, and medicines.

After conquering rhino horn, Markus says, Pembient plans to use its technology to develop substitutes for elephant tusk and tiger bone.

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