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How microscopic microbes can help us

How microscopic microbes can help us tackle the world’s biggest challenges

The CEO of bioscience company Chr. Hansen walks us through the company’s commitments and plans for the future, including an ambitious merger.
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“If you’d asked me 30 years back, I would never have predicted that I’d be here,” says Mauricio Graber, the CEO of the Danish bioscience company Chr. Hansen. “Life is a journey.” Mauricio’s professional journey was set in motion in the late 1980s, when he was finishing his MBA at Kellogg School of Management. Prior to that, he had studied electronic engineering and always assumed he was destined for a career in tech. But then, at Kellogg, he met Robert Shapiro, the CEO of the American sweetener company NutraSweet, after the executive had given a talk on campus.

Shapiro gave the ambitious student a piece of advice that Mauricio remembers to this day: “Go and work somewhere where you’ll find a passionate group of people with whom you’d like to work. Products and technologies, you can learn.” The impact of this advice was profound. Mauricio joined NutraSweet directly after his MBA and then, in the mid-1990s, moved to the Swiss-based Givaudan, the world’s largest flavour and fragrance company. In 2018, after more than 20 years, having worked his way up to president of Givaudan’s Flavours Division, the Mexican-born Mauricio decided to make the move to Chr. Hansen as CEO.

For the past five years, Mauricio has been at the helm of one of the world leaders in producing cultures, enzymes and probiotics for the food, nutritional, pharma and agricultural industries. The company, based in Hørsholm, just north of Copenhagen, has a history dating back to 1874, when its founder, Christian Ditlev Ammentorp Hansen, established a factory in a former metal workshop in Copenhagen. Back then, the business had one product: liquid animal rennet for the cheesemaking process. Today, Chr. Hansen estimates that every single day, over 1 billion people consume products containing one of its ingredients. Dairy is still a fundamental part of the business – roughly every second cheese or yoghurt product on the market worldwide uses a Chr. Hansen ingredient in its production.

This vast operation is underpinned by R&D, both internally and in collaboration with academia, private and public research institutions, and business partners. These activities are focused on the company’s “culture collection”: a bank of now more than 50,000 microbial strains, one of the largest such collections in the world. Much of this R&D involves bringing these strains together in new combinations or else improving the characteristics of strains to meet specific requirements. Given its scale and breadth, the culture bank is effectively a goldmine of opportunities to find the next generation of good bacteria.

Once developed, Chr. Hansen’s strains are used in a multitude of different ways, but as Mauricio explains, many contribute directly to tackling some of the world’s most challenging and intractable problems. Take food waste, for example. The company has developed so-called “bioprotective cultures”, natural cultures that outcompete bad pathogens, stopping them from forming in foodstuffs and extending the shelf life of products. “In plants,” says Mauricio, “we’re able to provide natural solutions for plant health that reduce the use of pesticides. For animals, we provide probiotics to reduce the use of antibiotics and therefore avoid the overuse of antibiotics that ends up having an impact on humans.”

In fact, Mauricio and his team have calculated that 80% of Chr. Hansen’s products contribute towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Does that mean that the other 20% are in conflict with the SDGs? Not quite, Mauricio says. Chr. Hansen makes products, for instance, that ensure a cheese has the characteristic holes which consumers have come to expect. “You can’t imagine having your favourite cheese without the holes,” says the CEO. “But that doesn’t contribute to a more sustainable planet, right? So we don’t count that.” It’s a methodology that has been audited and validated by external consultants from PWC, too.

Alongside this are the company’s climate commitments. In 2023, Chr. Hansen was ranked as the most sustainable biotech company in the world in Corporate Knight’s annual ranking (based on an assessment of close to 6,000 public companies with revenue over USD1 billion). A large part of this is down to the company’s clear SDG revenue, Science Based Targets to reduce its emissions – not just its Scope 1 and 2 emissions, the direct emissions from its own operations and energy use; but also its Scope 3 emissions, those associated with activities across the entire value chain. Chr. Hansen is targeting a 42% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gases by 2030 and a 20% reduction in Scope 3 emissions in the same timeframe.

Looking at emissions in this way is revealing. As Chr. Hansen’s own analysis has identified, Scope 3 emissions account for around 87% of the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, you can only tackle your emissions if you tackle your entire supply chain. “The engagement of suppliers is key,” Mauricio explains.

“They multiply the efforts of everything that we do, from the sourcing of raw materials to our transportation partners and logistics around the world.” The company’s large suppliers have been told that they have to join the decarbonisation journey in order to work with Chr. Hansen; meanwhile, it is lending support and toolkits to smaller suppliers that might not have the resources or capabilities to do the same.

The human microbiome represents a very important opportunity for the future.

While the health of the planet is one priority, the health of the human is another. The company’s Health and Nutrition division is growing rapidly, says Mauricio. Despite accounting for 37% of revenue (the Food Cultures and Enzymes division accounts for the rest), its growth is backed by some strong macrotrends. The pandemic brought one of these about. “Coming out of Covid, there is a great interest in immunity, gut health and the importance of the human microbiome as preventive medicine,” the CEO explains. Chr. Hansen has developed many probiotic strains to improve and maintain gut health, and is investing more into this area. “The human microbiome represents a very important opportunity for the future.”

Another opportunity has arisen through the emergence of plant-based food products. “There is consumer demand,” says Mauricio. “But these products don’t yet have the taste profile that keeps the consumer coming back and helps expand the segment.” He believes that Chr. Hansen’s microbial fermentation capabilities will be able to deliver taste and richness across this segment, as they have done for dairy products, for instance.

To help Chr. Hansen capitalise on these opportunities in the future, in December 2022, Mauricio announced a proposed merger with the enzymes manufacturer Novozymes, which would be the biggest-ever merger between two Danish companies. “We will bring together two very complementary platforms: Chr. Hansen being a leader in microbial solutions and Novozymes being a leader in enzymatic solutions,” says Mauricio. It will create, he says, “a unique bioscience company.” The merger is expected to be completed towards the end of 2023, shortly before Chr. Hansen reaches its 150th anniversary. The merger was approved by both companies’ shareholders at extraordinary general meetings in March, but is still contingent on regulatory approvals.

For Mauricio, another synergy can be found in the two companies’ shared commitment to tackling the climate crisis. “We are at a pivotal moment in history, when from a sustainability point of view, we will need to develop solutions for the future to address a sustainable farm-to-fork system, where we can produce more to feed a global population,” he says. “But we need to do it in a sustainable way, in a natural way, and to draw fewer resources from the planet.” If he’s right, enzymes and microbes, though microscopic in scale, might just be the keys to solving the most monumental challenge currently facing humanity.