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Investigation: What sustainable biotechnology companies are there in California? Part I: Biofuels

I have previously talked about the similarities and differences between the sustainable economy and the bio-based economy. As I am working on completing my PhD in 2011, I have started to look towards the next step. My goal for 2011 is to start a career in the sustainable biotechnology field, and so I have surveyed my options in California.

In my survey on this topic, I have found that the sustainable biotechnology companies can be divided into three areas of activity: biofuels, industrial enzymes, and bio-based biochemicals. Perhaps the most visible field area of sustainable biotechnology is the biofuels field given the increased need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. Because of the large potential market in this area, it may not be too surprising to learn that nearly every company in this field is involved in one form or another. This part will focus on companies that mainly are associated with biofuels development. They are characterized by mostly not having any products on the market at this time. As such most of these companies are start-ups that put a lot of their efforts into the development of a technology pipeline. Some may already be working on scaling-up production.

Next time, we will look at California-based companies in producing sustainable biochemicals, enzymes or products.

Companies I mainly found to work on biofuels:

Sapphire Energy: Sapphire Energy is located in San Diego, and its goal is to produce drop-in biofuels from oils produced in algae. The company has already succeeded in producing 91-octane gasoline in 2008, and tested algae-based jet fuels in 2009. Now Sapphire Energy is working on scaling-up the production capabilities. To this end, the company is constantly working on various technologies and has started to break ground for an “Integrated Algal Bio-Refinery” to be finished in 2014. To finance this big undertaking, Sapphire Energy has organized various sources of funding: Reputable investors such as Arch Venture Partners, The Wellcome Trust, Cascade Investment, Venrock have all invested into Sapphire Energy. Additionally, the company has partnered with Shell and has secured several government loan guaranties. Recently, Sapphire Energy has formed a strategic partnership with Monsanto. Although the company does not currently have any products on the market the prospects of this company are still very exciting.

Synthetic Genomics: Synthetic Genomics is the other biotech company in San Diego that works on algae. Although their goals are broader on stating a goal of producing sustainable chemicals using the same technology platform they are developing right now, their first stated emphasize is in the development of sustainable biofuels from algae. To this end, Synthetic Genomics has partnered with ExxonMobil, and is funded by Biotechonomy LLC, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Plenus, S.A. de C.V., ACGT Sdn Bhd, and Meteor Group. What makes Synthetic Genomics interesting is the research agreement with the J. Craig Venter Institute which allows Synthetic Genomics exclusive access to new invention at the not-for-profit organization.

Solazyme: Solazyme, located in San Francisco, is the other major algal bio-fuels company that seeks to produce bio-based oils that could be used as fuel in transportation and other uses. However, their approach to this end is different in that the company hopes to bring down the cost associated with traditional growth processes by growing algae in large dark vats. Algae are fed sugars obtained from renewable sources and are then fermented to obtain oils and/or ethanol. Solazyme is in part funded by Braemar Energy Ventures, Harris & Harris Group, Lightspeed Venture Partners, The Roda Group, and VantagePoint Venture Partners. It appears that each of these bio-fuels companies is more closely partnered with one of the major energy company. In this case, Solazyme seems to have partnered up with Chevron.

Kent Bioenergy Corporation (added 2011/3/5): Another local company that has not been mentioned much in the regular news is Kent Bioenergy Corporation. It is another company based in San Diego, and according to their website, they have had many years of experience in the field of growing and harvesting algae. Being a bioenergy company, their goal is the development of algal-based biofuels. Not much public knowledge is available for this company. But appaerently, they have developed an efficient proprietary algae harvesting method that can make algae settle out of the solution and then be withdrawn by a conveyor belt at the bottom of the pond. Remember that algae harvesting through centrifugation is extremely energy intensive and expensive. So this company may have one of the key pieces to make biofuels development cheaper.

LS9: LS9, also located in San Francisco, advertises itself to be a leading biofuels company. However, unlike the above mentioned companies, LS9 relies mainly on modified microorganisms. Additionally, LS9 appears to be more diverse by also pursuing the development of sustainable chemicals. Like Sapphire Energy and Solazyme, LS9 is currently in the process of developing products for the market and is currently supported by a variety of venture capital firms: Flagship Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and Lightspeed Venture Partners. Additionally, LS9 has partnered with Procter and Gamble in order to speed up the development of sustainable chemicals.

SG Fuels (added 2010-12-31): SG Fuels is yet another biofuels company, based in Encinitas, with yet another approach. They call themselves energy crop company, and their approach entails the harvesting of optimized Jatropha seeds. To do so, the company has collected an impressive genetic library of variations that can be used to further increase the yield of oil from Jatropha seeds. The company claims that it can produce these oils at a cost of $1.40 a gallon or about $58 a barrel.

Ceres (added 2011-04-02): I became of this biofuels company which is based in Thousand Oaks when I recently attended an AWISE panel discussion on Green Energy Biofuels. Like SG Fuels, this company this company seeks to derive biofuels from a "crop". While SG Fuels has decided to focus its immediate efforts on Jatropha seeds, Ceres has instead focused on genetically manipulating various grasses which allow them to grow on marginal lands that are perhaps too salty or too polluted with heavy metals for other plants to grow. Ceres' current product portfolio consists of switchgrass and sorghum seeds.

Some Personal Comments

Although I have tried my best to extensively survey companies in this field, it may be possible that I have missed some. However, in other cases, I have decided to leave the names off for the next part which is focused on industrial enzymes and sustainable chemicals/products because often times, those companies have products in the mentioned categories. Unlike previously mentioned companies, biofuels is an extension of their current technology platform and only part of an overall product portfolio rather than the sole immediate goal. So we are looking differences in emphasize.

Looking at the different approaches each company is taking to solve today's energy bottlenecks makes me excited! Which one will ultimately succeed, I dare not want to say. However, it is my personal believe that in tomorrow's energy economy, an over-reliance on just one  way just like with mono-cultures in agriculture is only a short-sighted solution. Given that energy needs are going to increase in the coming years thus driving energy prices higher, I think there is a place for all of these companies to grow synergistically together. I look forward to see (and hopefully be part of this) change!

If you feel that I should mention other companies, please feel free to contact me.

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