Biotech Startup Disrupts Rhino Horn Trade

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When it comes to technology versus nature it’s easy to adopt adversarial thinking. Anyone who’s seen Avatar may be led to believe that human progress and nature will always be at odds. But not today. This is a story at the crossroads of conservation and creativity. Biotech firm Pembient is planning on using 3D printing to disrupt the illegal and catastrophic trade in the horns of endangered rhinos.

The perpetuation of the superstitious belief that rhinoceros horn can cure diseases and improve fertility continues to drive a thriving illegal and species threatening trade on an international basis. At over $65,000 AUD for a kilogram, rhino horn trade is a highly organised crime.

The conventional approach to protecting rhinos has been to place them in sanctuaries under armed guard and to remove part of the horn to make them less attractive targets. Pembient has a new and radically disruptive approach – flood the market with inexpensive 3D printed rhino horn with a genetic makeup similar to the real thing.

Since rhino horn is made of keratin (the same protein in nails and hair), the material itself is inexpensive. By using keratin and rhino DNA, Pembient plans to print rhino horn and release it into the market at an eighth of the price. The hope is that as the market floods and prices come down, taking the profit incentive away from poachers and sellers.

This intersection of advanced technology with the interests of nature conservation has the potential to take reverse engineering into a whole new field.