Two chunks of rhino horn made without rhinos.
Pembient is the brainchild of Matthew Markus and George Bonaci. The startup, which was incorporated in 2015, leverages advances in biotechnology to fabricate wildlife products, such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, at prices below the levels that induce poaching. Their goal is to replace the illegal wildlife trade - a $20 billion black market that is the fourth largest after drugs, arms, and human trafficking - with sustainable commerce.
George Bonaci and Matthew Markus on a roof in Seattle, where Pembient got started.
The company is initially focusing on rhino horn. Rhino horn is in demand in East Asia, where it has been used as a carving material and a folk medicine for centuries. Since the supply of rhinos is so small, and demand is so high, rhino horn currently sells for upwards of $65,000 per kilogram on the illegal market. Many experts now believe that an “extinction vortex” is engulfing the species, as evidenced by the 1,215 rhinos (4% of the wild population!) poached in South Africa in 2014. This is up from only 13 rhinos poached in 2007.
Matthew's photo of a case full of rhino horns. This was taken in Vietnam, where Matthew was researching consumer acceptance of a cultured rhino horn.
Responses to the threat have varied. Some have pushed for vigorous demand reduction techniques aimed at stigmatizing rhino horn users and destroying the cultural traditions associated with rhino horn use. Others have attempted to militarize areas containing rhinos. A few have even advocated farming rhinos for horn. Matthew and George believe all of these efforts are flawed. Since rhino horn’s obscenely high price incentivizes poaching and corruption, they seek to directly undermine it. Pembient is born of their desire to do this in a legal, ethical, and sustainable manner.
Presently, Pembient is refining its biofabricated rhino horn product. This “cultured horn” matches rhino horn under spectrographic and genetic analysis. Additionally, it is targeted to sell for about ⅛ of the current market price. At scale, this means Pembient will act as an inexhaustible stockpile of accessible rhino horn.
Rhino horn powder, two small chunks of Pembient's poaching-free rhino horn, and a 3D printed small scale model of a rhino horn.
Prior to receiving customer interest in solid horn, Pembient developed a rhino horn powder. This powder was utilized in several minimal viable products, including a skin cream. All of these products were based off of market research conducted in East Asia.
The commercial Pembient made in Vietnam for their first product, a rhino horn skin cream.
Conservation is at the heart of Pembient’s mission; however, unlike traditional conservationists, Pembient wants to conserve both endangered species and cultural traditions. It also plans to use a portion of its revenue to fund anti-poaching and anti-poverty programs in South Africa and elsewhere.
One of Pembient’s earliest conservation efforts was the crowdfunding of the Black Rhino Genome Project. This campaign, done in conjunction with New Harvest, raised over $16,500 in June of 2015.
This is a photo of Ntombi, the black rhino in South Africa whose genome is being sequenced for the Black Rhino Genome Project.
Sequence data from the black rhino genome project will seed a genomic database. The project’s ultimate goal is to have this database contain sequences from all 8 subspecies of black rhino, 3 of which are extinct, in order to understand the genetic differences within and between subspecies. One day, the data may even assist in bringing the extinct subspecies back into existence!
Sequencing work is now being done by Dr. Chuck Murry’s lab at the University of Washington. Once complete, the data will be made accessible to the public via DNAnexus. Eventually, the findings will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
For New Harvest, the crowdfunding campaign was a way to test how crowdfunding platforms could support innovative research. New Harvest’s intern in 2015, Meera Zassenhaus, ran the campaign and was able to drive 181 backers to the project.
Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same family of protein found in hair, skin, nails, and hooves. Pembient’s initial rhino horn prototypes are reformulated from sheep’s wool because wool also contains keratin.
An early prototype of Pembient’s rhino horn, made from wool as a starting material.
Another prototype of the rhino-free horn.
A vial of rhino horn powder, made by Pembient.
Pembient is now moving towards a completely animal-free rhino horn. This version of the product contains rhino-specific keratins that are produced by microorganisms. Once these keratins are purified and dried, they can be combined with rhino DNA and other biomolecules to form an ink for a novel 3D printing process. The end result is either a full rhino horn or tiles of horn that can then be carved by artisans into jewelry or other decorative items. Scraps from the carving process are edible, and may be resold on to secondary markets.
George and Matthew in the their tiny independent lab in Seattle, where Pembient was born.
Written by Isha Datar with input from Matthew Markus, November 17, 2015