Interview with Pierre Monsan

Director of Toulouse White Biotechnology

Why is Toulouse a good place to develop industrial biotech (IB) solutions?

First, from a historical perspective, the fortune of Toulouse in the Middle Ages came from an empirical IB process: the spontaneous fermentation of the leaves of a plant called dyer’s woad or glastum (Isatis tinctoria). This yielded a blue dye (“the pastel”) which was exported all over Europe, especially to the Netherlands.

Second, since the mid-sixties at the University of Toulouse there is a strong and well-known tradition and expertise in biology, biochemistry, microbiology, biochemical engineering, molecular biology, genetic engineering, synthetic biology and bioprocesses. This attracted companies like Elf (now Total) to set up an R&D center in the mid-eighties (later Sanofi Bioresearch and Sanofi Bioindustries). Another example is Lallemand, a Canadian yeast company with a bacteria research laboratory located here.

And finally, we have a steadily growing bio-industrial ecosystem with health and pharma companies (e.g. Merck Vaccine production, Evotec, Antabio, Vectalys), cosmetic ingredients (e.g. Pierre Fabre, Givaudan Active Beauty, Clariant, IFF Lucas Meyer), and IB SMEs (Agronutrition, Pili, CIMV and Micropep to name just a few). The Toulouse Métropole and the region have also clearly identified the biotechnology sector as a strategic priority in their development plan.


What is the most significant development that you have noted in the field of bio-based industries in the last year?

Certainly LanzaTech, with their process for transforming combustion gases into bioethanol or butanediol and acetic acid. A production plant is operating in Europe with Arcelor Mittal, another is under implementation in China, and a third will follow in India.


What have been the key milestones in TWB’s path to success and what do you hope for in 2018?

The National Programme “Investment for the Future” was a fantastic opportunity for us. An international jury selected TWB to receive €20m in 2011 thanks to the commitment of INRA and twenty outstanding companies. In June 2015 we also moved into new, large premises of 1700 m², resulting in rapid growth and the possibility to host start-up companies. Together with our financial partners from a blue-sky project, we gave a 3-year grant to the first such start-up, EnobraQ. In 2018, we hope to continue to amplify the attractiveness of TWB by offering integrated services to IB companies via our technological platforms, and provide specific support to start-ups.


What do you expect from EFIB 2018?

The forum will be important to highlight that IB in Europe is an important technology in the fight against climate change and to develop sustainable processes even in the context of low oil prices. EFIB will also gather many companies and academic colleagues in Toulouse, to show that we now have a very creative ecosystem that is particularly attractive for start-up companies. The event will also show that Toulouse is about more than only the aerospace industry.


What makes Toulouse such a great place to visit?

Toulouse is a lovely old city from the French Renaissance, and it did not suffer as much as other French cities during the World Wars. Its roots are in a very old culture (Occitania, “troubadours”), but at the same time the city is very high-tech, with many top-level academic laboratories in different scientific fields (IT, life sciences, economics). It is also France’s second university city with no less than 120 000 students. The surroundings are superb, and Albi and Carcassonne are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Toulouse is also optimally located on the banks of the Garonne River, near the Pyrenees and in the middle between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Finally, Toulouse is renowned for its quality of life – as they say, it is the French Southwestern “art de vivre”!