Update (5 PM EST)

Thank you Reddit community for asking so many good questions! I see there are a bunch I still haven't replied to yet. I'll try to get on later and answer the remaining ones if I have time. I haven't used Reddit very much in the past, but the quality of the questions and the civility in the forums is just awesome. Thanks all for participating!


Hello Reddit! We are Matthew Markus and George Bonaci, the co-founders of Pembient. We have backgrounds in genetics and biochemistry and we are extremely concerned about the ongoing poaching crisis facing rhinos.

Did you know that 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa last year? That's almost 4% of the wild population! Furthermore, the number of rhinos poached has been increasing every year since 2008.

Rhino horn is in demand in East Asia where it is used as a traditional medicine and status symbol. Because the supply of rhinos is so small and the demand so great, rhino horn currently sells for tens of thousands of dollars. We believe the single greatest driver of the poaching and corruption threatening the rhinos is this high price.

In order to attack the price of rhino horns, we've decided to fabricate them in a lab. Our horns are practically indistinguishable from wild horns. By creating an unlimited supply of horns at one-eighth of the current market price, there should be far less incentive for poachers to risk their lives or government officials to accept bribes.

Finally, we believe that animals are precious and traditions are important. Therefore, we don't think one should be pitted against the other if there is a possibility that both can peacefully co-exist.

If you would like to help us, we're currently running a crowdfunding campaign to sequence the black rhino genome:


Experiment.com is matching donations for the next 24 hours, so now is an ideal time to donate! All data from this project will be released into the public domain.


https://twitter.com/pembient/status/612987965212618752 https://www.facebook.com/pembient/posts/408774349325492

Comments: 335 • Responses: 43  • Date: 

ThisIsNotMyTrueForm137 karma

Don't you think that by providing an "unlimited supply" of something that's very limited by nature would make a big deal of the authenticity, working exactly opposite of what's tried to be done? Or are you planning to run some world-wide cabal where you provide the poachers with merchandise and they turn the profit without any need to kill the rhinos?

Now I think what you're doing is great, but maybe it's just the pessimist in me thinking why this venture would be failing.

matt_pembient110 karma

Well, there is a top down approach where we sell into the market as an alternative to rhino horn. In this way, we're like a better and more humane water buffalo horn (the official substitute to rhino horn). There is also a bottom up approach, which you mention, whereby we sell, grant, or loan horns to communities around wildlife areas and they resell those objects.

One nice thing is that we're competing against poaching syndicates, and these syndicates cannot really offer any legal proof of authenticity. So, as long as our products look the same on the molecular, microscopic, and macroscopic levels, it should be very difficult and expensive for anyone to differentiate between us and wild horn.

altiuscitiusfortius0 karma

Yeah, this is exactly what I thought. If the new fake horns are indistinguishable from real horns, then poachers can still poach rhinos for their horns (because that is what they are trained to do, and they are going to keep doing their job because they need money) and then their is less risk in selling the real horns, because they can simply claim that they are fake horns during customs and inspections and what not.

matt_pembient9 karma

Let me steal a quote from myself:

"[In the drug trade], a cutting agent is easy to spot or, if it is not, it is of equal value to the product being cut. That’s the issue with laundering right now. You put in a little legal product and then move a whole bunch of illegal product. What happens when traffickers can put in a more attainable, undetectable cutting agent? They’ll start to use more and more of it. The dynamics should then flip with a lot of cutting agent being used to move a little illegal product. Eventually, the incentive for traffickers to run an expensive, illegal supply chain from South Africa to Vietnam will completely disappear since they can simply pass off Pembient horn as wild horn."

If the higher-ups can't or won't pay poachers enough, the poachers will move on to other activities. Additionally, we would like to use some of our revenues to fund anti-poaching and anti-poverty programs in Africa and elsewhere.

USCFO96 karma

you ever consider its the r that is silent and not the h ?


matt_pembient58 karma

That's a new one.

after3170 karma

Practically indistinguishable? please explain further.

Could flooding the market with fake horns make real horns seem like more of a prize and do the opposite to what you intended by encouraging more poaching?

matt_pembient137 karma

We would like to be identical to wild horn. On our way to that goal, we would like to make it more and more expensive to tell the difference between us and wild horn. At some point, someone might have to pay more money than the product is worth to detect any differences, and that's a great place to be.

In order for wild horns to be prized more, there needs to be a way to tell they're actually from the wild. Scientifically, we can become indistinguishable. Since there is no legal market for wild horn, and no government authority for certifying wild horn as real, it is not clear how real horn will be identified and awarded a premium in the market.

Memphians47 karma

Do you think that flooding the market will just further the misinformation that rhino horns are useful for medicinal/consumption purposes?

matt_pembient48 karma

To quote a TRAFFIC study:

"Rhino horn has not been well researched in comparison with other ingredients in traditional medicine. Only one study was found testing rhino horn for pharmacological effect in humans using the best-practice method of a randomized double-blind trial. That study found a short-lived significant effect on fever in children, but did not recommend its use as acetaminophen (a common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) performed better."

In the West, the campaign denouncing rhino horn as not being a medicine has been pretty successful. Elsewhere, that message is not as readily received. Furthermore, keratin is used in a lot of beauty and skin treatments in the West, so clearly Westerners find keratin, one of the primary constituents of rhino horn, of great value.

We would like to move away from questions of usefulness and instead focus on the dangers and health concerns of obtaining rhino horn through illegal channels.

CurdledBabyGravy10 karma

Except Westerners don't buy Rhino horns for keratin as far as I know. There are other ways of obtaining keratin, are there not?

matt_pembient35 karma

All involve exploiting an animal.

Ozioso35 karma

I have to assume that a big part of the trade is mob and/or militant controlled. Are you worried of backlash against you?

I think what you're doing is wonderful, btw. Attacking the product is novel and I hope it works.

matt_pembient28 karma

No, we're not worried. We started our company in Seattle, where marijuana was recently legalized. I've not heard of a single legitimate marijuana business being attacked. Additionally, the legalization has had an awesome impact on the illegal trade.


urrugger0143 karma

I think it would be pretty fair to say that there is a large difference between the marijuana trade and the poaching "trade."

There is also a large difference in the locations you would be selling to. Legalizing marijuana in Seattle is much different than making Rhino horns in Seattle and then selling them across the world. Unless you plan to box these and ship them from your office to overseas markets... a person is going to be involved in somepoint and that person could be threatened by those who do not want you to enter the market.

matt_pembient26 karma

That's a fair reply. I guess when I think of this, I think it is inevitable. In general, criminals don't like to battle over dying markets when they can do something else. They're pretty shrewd in that regard.

Baldeagleactivist30 karma

What if poachers just keep the horn attached to the head until it reaches the final buyer?

matt_pembient61 karma

A rhino's horns weigh about 11 pounds and can be quickly removed from the animal. A rhino's head is about 500 pounds and any operation to remove and transport it would not be so simple. Poachers don't want to spend hours at a crime scene.

CurdledBabyGravy13 karma

Maybe just a small piece of the flesh (or whatever it is) that surrounds the horn?

matt_pembient27 karma

We can account for some flesh over time. Of course, transporting unpreserved flesh presents its own challenges.

Ennion21 karma

Can you print elephant tusks?

matt_pembient29 karma

Not yet. Tusks are like teeth, so they're a little more complex than horns, which are like hooves.

explorasaurr10 karma

Is that something you are actively working on?

matt_pembient18 karma

We're in the early, early stages. The black market price of ivory is relatively low at $2500 per kilogram. This is mainly due to the fact that there are way more elephants than rhinos in the wild. We're finding it tough to come up with a solution that works below that price range given existing technology.

daddytorgo10 karma

You should consider seeking grants for that, or subsidizing your elephant-tusk work with the proceeds of your rhino-horn work.

You're doing an amazing thing here - it'd be a crying shame if you weren't able to protect some vulnerable species just due to something as readily-available (in the West) as money.

matt_pembient23 karma

True. As a start, we could use a few more donations to the Black Rhino Genome Project!


graffiti8111 karma

How is this different from the argument against animated child porn or old ivory? Won't this serve to make more available, and therefore more people will want it, and, with fake stuff around, rich people being more willing to hire a specific poacher to go kill an animal to ensure the real deal?

matt_pembient17 karma

Hiring a specific poacher is a pretty expensive, time consuming, and risky proposition. Currently, it just isn't done, and thankfully there is no app for that.

Looking at fakes in general, there are already quite a few crude ones on the market. We view the existing fake horn being traded as a buffer on true demand. This buffer is about to be eliminated. Already, cheap devices capable of characterizing foods are being developed and sold [1, 2]. These sort of advances will be incorporated into the next generation of smartphones and act to remove the existing fakes from the market. That will, in turn, put more pressure on the rhinos. At the very least, we aim to create better fakes that can fool these coming technologies.

[1] https://gigaom.com/2014/04/29/consumer-physics-150-smartphone-spectrometer-can-tell-the-number-of-calories-in-your-food/ [2] http://news.usf.edu/article/templates/?a=6692&z=220

saucypony10 karma

This seems like a really cool concept, but I'm seeing that the fundraiser is strictly for sequencing, yet it sounds like you've already produced lab-grown horns. Could you share some pictures of said horns?

matt_pembient9 karma

By a quirk of fate, the wild horns we have access to are from a black rhinoceros. And, by another quirk of fate, the only genome sequence available online is from a white rhinoceros. Whenever we do some reverse engineering in order to generate a new prototype there is a lot of extra work we have to do due to this mismatch.

Ryan Bethencourt, one of the Directors at IndieBio, suggested we sequence the black rhino genome to make things easier on ourselves. Further, he thought that crowdfunding this initiative would be great since a lot of other organizations could benefit from this data.

So, here we are! Please donate if you get a chance:


decomas8 karma

How difficult would it be for a spin-off startup to do a similar goal, but for ivory and elephant tusks?

(I love synthetic biology and think it can solve a lot of the global problems we are facing.)

matt_pembient9 karma

It's on our roadmap, but if someone beats us to it, so be it. Actually, shark fin might be a good spin-off. Go for it!

ricoza8 karma

South African here, thanks for a great initiative!

Do you plan on flooding the market directly to Asia, or via South Africa? I'd think via South Africa would make it seem more authentic,do you agree? I can see an awesome scheme where you supply local moles pretending to be poachers, without the danger of actual poaching. If you can disincentivise poachers to kill actual rhino in order to get horn by supplying them with risk free horn, you'll stop the killing.

matt_pembient7 karma

Short answer: Both! I suppose you could print horns and leave them lying around for poachers to find and resell. Alternatively, you could sell them to local communities at a reduced price for them to resell. One could even tie the price to the number of rhinos going unmolested in the surrounding area. There are a lot of options here, and many things should be tried, IMHO.

joeskywalker8 karma

Hello. Do you plan on involving African conservation groups and/or investors? If so, where/what groups are you targeting? Thanks

matt_pembient13 karma

Yes! We've actually received the most interest from African conservation groups and investors. Unfortunately, none of these groups are prepared to go on record yet, so I cannot really say much about them at this time.

Bananawamajama7 karma

Does this have applications for other rare animal products? Like could you print rare furs so that people who want fancy clothes don't have to kill endangered animals for it?

matt_pembient8 karma

We know of someone working on fur!

There is a whole crop of companies that are emerging to reduce or eliminate society's dependence on animals for animal products. IndieBio, the biotech accelerator we're a part of, is funding a lot of them.

Senor_Tucan7 karma

What are your thoughts on the possibility of making authentic rhino horn more expensive and lucrative, after flooding the market with synthetic? Will people be able to tell the difference?

matt_pembient15 karma

Again, without a certifying authority or government agency, it is going to be very hard for parallel markets to develop. Our goal is to make sure nobody can scientifically tell the difference between our horns and wild horns.

ahsolimanbe6 karma

I noticed you're crowdfunding your project. Was it hard pitching your idea to angel investors? Have you faced hardships explaining the ongoing crisis to them?

matt_pembient11 karma

We want to crowdfund as much of the science as possible so that conservationists, zoologists, and others can benefit from what we're doing. We're in talks with other investment groups, but we need to find the right fit. And, yes, a few don't really get or care about poaching.

tzuridis6 karma

Do you guys work with any group that is in East asia that tries to show or prove that rhino horns such as the one you guys will print basically have no medicinal use? This education process should help stop the superstition.

matt_pembient10 karma

We haven't thought about partnering with a group in East Asia in the manner you suggest. Obviously, most of the newfangled medicinal uses of rhinoceros horn (e.g., cancer cure) are pure quackery. The research on some of the more traditional uses (e.g., fever reducer) is less clear. We would definitely like to dispel people of the belief that rhino horn can cure cancer, and we'll work to do so.

mobius1ace56 karma

Hey Matt! Thank you guys for doing this! As someone who works in the professional 3D printing industry (I run a full color 3D Printing company), it is great to see something in the news for 3D Printing besides firearms! My question for you is how do you plan on doing the printing? What are the machines you plan to use? And will the data that you guys collect be available to the public, such as the DNA sequencing? If there is some way that I can help you guys please let me know!

EDIT: missing words

matt_pembient2 karma

I don't have too much to say about the 3D printing work right now. On the sequencing side, we're going to release the black rhinoceros genome to the public. That way, both African rhino species will be available online. Ideally, we would like to do all the black rhino subspecies; however, it looks like our crowdfunding initiative still has a way to go.


runnerdood6 karma

What does the name Pembient mean?

matt_pembient7 karma

Pembe ~ horn, tusk https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pembe

-ient ~ kind of agent, indication http://www.prefixsuffix.com/rootchart.php

So, I guess it is a made up word meaning something like "indication of horn or tusk."

wigglieri5 karma

Why start with rhino horn and not another wildlife product?

matt_pembient10 karma

We mainly started with rhino horn because it is so expensive. That gives us a lot of room to experiment, deploy expensive technologies on the problem, and still make a major impact on reducing the price.

If you look at something like ivory, it is a much harder problem and it is much cheaper than rhino horn, so it didn't seem like we could significantly impact the price.

hadeharian4 karma

Let me rephrase as a question so I can win at jeopardy. Are there any plans to do ivory at any point?

matt_pembient4 karma


SinisterRiverRat3 karma

Hi Matthew and George! I was wondering if you guys would have any advice for someone thats getting started in Bioengineering, and eventually wanting to move their way up to the Biotech field? This could literally be anything: like traits you need to develop or things you need to get used to?

matt_pembient4 karma

I started in computer science before moving into biostats/statistical genetics. From my perspective, learning how to program is very useful even if you're not going to be doing it every day.

runnerdood3 karma

Your team is doing amazing work.

What are your thoughts of lab-grown meat, milk, egg whites, etc.? To me it also presents a unique, humane alternative to factory farming, like yours is a unique alternative to the horrible poaching going on.

matt_pembient6 karma

Thank you. My team and I are against farming, so we're very excited about the new technologies and companies working to eliminate factory farming. Pembient is really constructed around the idea of preventing the farming of wildlife, which is a distinct possibility, and something we hope to prevent.

ki11bunny3 karma

I have read in other places that this will in fact increase the price of real rhino horns and increase poaching because the impurities within the real rhino horn are not found within your version.

How would you respond to people saying that you will just make the problem worse by flooding the market with these horns??

Do you have a way to include these impurities?? If not do you have any plans to do so that these horns can be truly indistinguishable from real one??

matt_pembient9 karma

If we need to include impurities, we'll do it.

Again, if you look at whale oil (vs. kerosene), X-mas trees (vs. artificial trees), fur (vs. faux fur), turkey (vs. tofurkey) you don't really see an alternative making the problem worse.

Nabilelnassar3 karma

I believe that rhino horn is only a traditional issue in some african or even Asian countries. It was used in ancient history for medical purposes and is still used from traditional tribes. I have read before that doctors have not found any true medical treatment from these horns. What do you know concerning this issue? Guide us.

matt_pembient7 karma

Yes, this a complicated topic. One of the best resources is the following white paper, which I've quoted from in a previous response.


Fearltself3 karma

What do you think about legalizing rhinoceros ownership in the form of ranges or farms? This would give incentives for owners of rhinos to keep them alive so that they can harvest their horns over and over again, as opposed to the system we have today which encourages poaching . It would also give people who own rhino farms an incentive to promote breeding and population growth.

matt_pembient2 karma

In general, we're against rhinoceros farming. I understand the economic arguments for it, but it would be best if ranges made money from ecotourism, IMHO.

tea-earlgray-hot3 karma

What kind of spectroscopy are you using to match the native vs synthetic product, when you refer to them as indistinguishable? XRD and FTIR?

1337chemist2 karma

The most common analytical lab tests so FTIR, XRF, AAS, MS in scan (if you can get it soluble ;) ) etc.

matt_pembient3 karma

Thanks, George!

bowlthrasher3 karma

Have you tried doing this with ivory? How far out is that from being a reality?

matt_pembient4 karma

It is still far off, IMHO. See some of the questions above on this topic.

Tstano772 karma

China is still eating dogs and using animals in their crazy cures. Are there groups trying to educate them about this?

matt_pembient9 karma

There are groups trying to stop the use of shark fin, tiger bone, elephant ivory, dog meat, rhinoceros horn, pangolin scales, etc. At some point, though, you cannot really change a culture to be exactly like yours. That's why we're excited about lab-made products. They offer the possibility of letting some of these traditions endure without the need for animals to be killed.

thickmeaty2 karma

Will these be sold in local markets for interested supporters?

matt_pembient3 karma

Honestly, we haven't given much thought to selling things outside of East Asia. I know a lot of different non-profits sell rhino tchotkes; although, none made of synthetic rhino horn. Is there really any interest in this?

m5ooooo2 karma

Have you ever talked to a Rhino poacher or anyone in the black market trade? What do they think of you?

matt_pembient4 karma

I've mainly focused on the demand side and not the supply side. Thus, I've spoken with several rhino horn users in Vietnam. I've not spoken to any poachers. Later today, I'll be talking with a researcher who has extensively studied and traveled along the black market trade routes. It should be interesting!

jennygene2 karma

When will we be able to purchase pembient swag?

matt_pembient6 karma

LOL. I'm probably the world's worst CEO since I don't really like swag. I guess a true entrepreneur would ask: What kind of swag do you want?

hadeharian2 karma

Would you consider engineering your current product to save living rhinos that have had their horn removed via something like a transplant? How would that work?

matt_pembient2 karma

Yeah, that's difficult. Someone contacted us about Hope, the rhino who recently survived a savage poaching attack. We had Dr. Charles Murry, one of our friends we're working with on the Black Rhino Genome Project, review her case. Unfortunately, the reconstruction and grafting work required is at the outer limits of what is currently possible. Perhaps in the future, as the technology develops, we can help rhinos like Hope. Of course, it would be better if these kinds of things didn't happen in the first place.

huhaskldasdpo2 karma

When are we going to bio engineer dinosaurs?

matt_pembient3 karma

Jurassic World aside, I doubt we're ever going to have dinosaurs walking around. You need live cells to bootstrap a de-extinction event. I can see the possibility of bringing back one of the lost black rhino subspecies someday using an existing subspecies. For dinosaurs, though, what existing animal would take a dinosaur to term? Is it ethical to use an animal in that way? Probably not.

daveime0 karma

With all the best intentions in the world, we really should be heavily prosecuting individuals who consume, customs officers who turn a blind eye, etc.

I'm really not sure trying to "trick" them with fakes is going to work. Give them a good reason not to consume ivory under any circumstances, rather than encourage them to pay a higher premium for "the genuine article", which in turn gives poachers an even bigger financial incentive to continue.

Your thoughts?

Repost as the silly bot thinks anything without a question mark isn't a question.

matt_pembient7 karma

One big problem with the limited supply and attendant high prices is corruption. There is already a phenomenon called "khaki-collar crime" that involves the bribing or paying off of government officials. This kind of crime is insidious because it undermines institutions. One of our biggest fears is that drones will be used to hunt rhinos, and that may simply be done through paid informants leaking rhino locations to poachers.

Prohibition always sounds appealing, but it is difficult to pull off. Usually, the eventual solution is something short of prohibition. We feel that lab-made horns could be that something.

birdsofprey-2 karma

Do you guys like True Blood?

matt_pembient3 karma

The questions is, does True Blood like us?