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Pembient co-founders Matthew Markus and George Bonaci.

More than a decade ago, Matthew Markus wrote an idea down in his notebok. The Seattle entrepreneur had recently received a degree in genetic epidemiology, and wondered if he could use new bioengineering technologies used to create faux rhino horn.

Ten years later, Markus is living out that vision.

Markus is the co-founder of Pembient, a new Seattle startup that is fabricating wildlife products like rhino horn, elephant ivory, tiger bone, and pangolin scales and sell them at prices below what’s available on the black market.

Rhino horn for purchase in a Vietnamese shop. Photo via Matthew Markus.

The hope is to eliminate illegal poaching of wild animals. Markus noted that there were 1,215 rhinos poached in South Africa alone last year.

“We want to produce a supply that’s indistinguishable from what’s available on the black market,” said Markus, who previously was COO at now-defunct HearIt.

Pembient is initially focusing on fabricating rhino horn. It does this with a biochemical approach, replicating the DNA found in an authentic rhino horn.

“We’re looking to create a product that, when tested in a variety of ways, appears to be just like a rhino horn,” Markus said.

The CEO explained how rhino horn is used as traditional medicine in Asia, while also hailed as a status symbol. He said people use rhino horn to detoxify the body, reduce fevers, and more.

“It’s sort of magical,” Markus noted.

But that’s also why demand for rhino horn has spiked in recent years. Since the supply of the product remains fixed, Markus said the price has spiked to as high as $100,000 per kilogram on the black market.

Markus with traditional medicine practitioners in Vietnam.
Markus with traditional medicine practitioners in Vietnam.

At the same time, there’s a growing middle class in countries like China and Vietnam with more disposable income to spend on exotic medicinal practices. Markus said he was convinced that Pembient could create a sustainable business with bioengineered wildlife products after visiting Vietnam, where he found that 45 percent of rhino horn users would buy rhino horn made from a lab.

“Everyone I talked to noted how this could be commercialized, brought to fruition, and used as a tool to fight poaching in Africa by creating an infinite supply of product,” he said.

Pembient was just accepted into the inaugural class of Indie.Bio, a new biotech-focused incubator in San Francisco that officially kicks off later this month. The company, which is receiving $100,000 in funding from Indie.Bio, hopes to have its first product available at the end of June.

Markus admits that Pembient has a “very risky and strange idea,” but he’s confident about the mission.

“We want to take this $20 billion black market and turn it into a market of sustainable commerce,” Markus said.

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