Skip to main content

Investigation: What sustainable biotechnology companies are there in California? Part II: Sustainable Products

In my previous blog, I surveyed what companies are more closely associated with the biofuels field. Continuing on the survey for sustainable biotechnology companies in California, today, I want to cover companies that fall under the broad and often times overlapping category of industrial enzymes, bio-based chemicals and products.

Industrial enzymes are bio-catalysts often used to make other products the consumer ends up using. In the past, they have often been developed to substitute traditional chemical catalysts that can be toxic, and often are not specific enough. Sustainable chemicals and products often replace traditionally fossil-derived products and are usually the result of metabolic processes.

Update (2015-05-06): This is a highly dynamic field. Over short amounts of time, many start-up efforts have stopped. On the other hand, many new start-ups have sprung up. 

Amyris Biotechnologies: Amyris Biotechnologies, located in Emeryville, is the first sustainable biotechnologies company we will cover today. Founded in 2003, Amyris' first product was the production of synthetic Artemisnin, an anti-malarial agent, using a genetically engineered yeast-platform. Since then, Amyris has diversified its portfolio. Recently, the company has launched Biofene, which appears to be bio-based farnesene or a farnesene-derivative for which Amyris received the "2010 Product of the Year" award from Biofuel's Digest. Farnesene can be used in the manufacturing of a variety of applications such as lubricants, polymer additives, additives to cosmetic products, flavor and fragrances. Finally, on the biofuels side, the company was successful in converting their Biofene product into renewable diesel. In addition to Biofene, Amyris is working on other ways to obtain biofuels components from sugar cane (for example ethanol), and has partnered up with important bio-ethanol partners in Brazil including Crystalsev, and Santa Elisa.

Aurora Algae: After a recent reorientation, Aurora Algae, located in San Francisco and formally known as Aurora Biofuels, prides itself in being the "industry's first photosynthetic algae-based platform for pharmaceutical, food, fuel and aquaculture products". Aurora Algae is notably not focusing all their efforts on algal bio-fuels though it is still part of their longer-term strategy. Rather, its first approach consists of harvesting higher-value products from algae. At this point, the company focuses on omega-3 fatty acids which are naturally abundant in many algal species. The company plans on marketing these omega-3 fatty acids as pre-cursor products to the pharmaceutical industry and as food supplements to the general consumer.  Algae are known to be good protein sources for many fish species. As part of the integrated production platform, Aurora Algae is also targeting the fish farming market by offering algal-based fish feed.

Update (2015-05-06): Aurora Algae appears to mostly be defunct now.

Codexis: Codexis, located in Redwood, is another exciting sustainable biotechnology company. Its strength lies in the development and optimization of an advanced proprietary directed-evolutionary-based platform. Codexis has leveraged this very special strength by offering services to custom manufacture bio-catalysts, pharmaceutical intermediates and metabolites, as well as offering screening panels. Interestingly, Shell and Codexis have formed a strategic partnership for the development of the next-generation biofuels.

Update (2015-05-06): Codexis at this point has retreated from the renewable chemicals market and focused back on pharmaceuticals.

Genencor: Genencor, located in Palo Alto, is an independent division of the Danish food-processing company Danisco. Genencor's expertise lies in the development and marketing of enzymes for various consumer and industrial markets. As a reminder, the advantage of enzymes, which are essentially bio-catalysts, are often significant reductions in energy use, reduction in the use of toxic chemicals, as well as much more chiraly specific complex products. With about a quarter of the world-wide industrial enzymes market, Genencor is the second largest company in the field only to be surpassed by Novozyme. As such the product line is too long to list in detail. But to name a few, consumers will likely have used some of Genencor's products without knowing if they use laundry or dishwashing detergents. Amylases, proteases and cellulases are often used in these products and allow for cold washes to still be effective. Genencor offers a wide variety of enzymes for agricultural and industrial uses including carbohydrate processing, water treatment, pulp and paper as well as textile processing. Genencor's approach to the biofuels market lies in the manufacturing of cost-competitive bio-ethanol using its expertise in industrial enzymes engineering.

Genomatica: Genomatica, based in San Diego, has an interesting history. Originally founded by Professor Bernhard Paalson, the company was offering its expertise and services in metabolic engineering and bioinformatics of microorganisms. It turned out that bioinformatics as a discipline did not by itself have a big enough market to support all the different specialty services. So the company has decided to apply its expertise in metabolic engineering to specialize in producing chemicals in a renewable that is bio-based way. Genomatica's first product currently in pilot-production stage is 1,4-Butanediol, or BDO which is has many uses including uses as a solvent or as a component in the manufacture of some types of plastics, elastic fibers and polyurethanes. The company states an interest in developing cost-competitive, bio-based isopropanol, butadiene and propylene in the future.

Update (2015-05-06): It has gotten very quiet at Genomatica since 2014. I wonder what is going on.

Micromidas: This start-up company, based in Sacramento, only recently hit my news screen. They came to the news because it is their goal to convert human waste streams to plastic products using their proprietary bacterial platform. I have not been able to find out much more about the company as they seem very new. As such I will follow this company with great interest to see their future progress.

Verdezyne: Verdezyne is a new privately held start-up company based in Carlsbad with goals similar to Genomatica but with its own niche. The company's slogan is all about "Green Chemistry" using a proprietary yeast production platform. When I had a chance to visit the company, I found that they essentially have two branches of research: renewable chemicals and renewable fuels. On the renewable chemicals front, Verdezyne is currently working on developing cost-competitive, bio-based adipic acids, which according to Wikipedia is the most important dicarboxylic acid on the market with many uses ranging from pre-cursors for nylon, to uses in medicine and food as gelling agents. On the biofuels front, Verdezyne seeks to produce ethanol from pentose and hexose sugars.

Verenium: Verenium is another specialty enzymes company similar to Genencor, but is based in San Diego. Verenium used to own and operate a pilot plant for the production of bio-ethanol from switch grass in partnership with BP. However, with the recent company reorganization due to the partial acquisition of Verenium's biofuels department by BP Biofuels, the company can now focus on its strength developing specialty enzymes. Verenium has four product columns. In the animal health and nutrition field, Verenium developed a phytase in collaboration with Genencor in order to increase the ability of feedstock to uptake phosphorous naturally contained in plants and hence reduce the use of phosphate rock normally used to enhance animal feed. Verenium offers various enzymes to enhance oil seed and grain processing efficiencies. On the emerging enzyme market, the company offers mannanases, and lyases. A product I particularly find interesting is a xylanase which the it says can improve pulp bleaching while reducing the need for toxic bleaching chemicals.

Update (2015-05-06): The biofuels branch of Verenium were bought up by BP Biofuels back in 2013-14. BP Biofuels has since decided to retreat from the development of lignocellulosic ethanol and is currently in the process of closing those parts down. A skeletal crew of 30-40 people remain to continue research on unknown topics. The specialty enzymes branch of Verenium was acquired by BASF.

New companies I have become aware of are as followed (I will update this section soon):

Lygos: This is a small synthetic biology start-up, trying to make melalonic acid (? need to confirm).

Paratek Biotechnology: This is another small synthetic biology start-up company trying to make a rewable chemical. Current products are unknown.

Intrexon: This company was built through acquisition and thus does many things from DNA assembly to pharmaceutics. Currently, the SF branch is expanding. The SF branch is focussed on renewable industrial chemicals.

Zymergen: The founders of this company used to work at Amyris. This company seeks to specialize in initially providing services for automated strain construction similar to Amyris but according to the founders more innovative. 

Teselagen: This company seeks to be the bio-fab for other companies and academic labs. If you usel the Chip industry as an analogy, AMD designs chips and then works with fab owners to make those chips. Examples of fab owners are Global Foundry and Samsung. Teselagen seeks to play the bio equivalent of Global Foundries and Samsung.

Bolt Threads: This company used to be named Refactored Materials. In 2015, the company rebranded itself to Bolt Threads which is more in-line with what they are trying to bring to the market: spider silk from yeast cells.

Closing Comments

These few blog posts are a work-in-progress. As I find out more about this field, I will come back to these blog posts and update them with some frequencies. Compared to the pharmaceutical industries, these companies represent just a small fraction of the total biotechnology world out there. However, it appears that there is a lot of exciting growth potential for all of these companies and the sustainable biotech field as a whole. Given the number of companies in this field in California, it appears that the unique combination of abundant finance, regulation and density of research institution serves as fertile breeding ground for innovations in bio-based cleantechnology field. The sampling of these very diverse companies in California gives just a small glimpse of the future. I hope that my survey also helped the reader understand some of the potential of this field and understand why I get excited and look forward to be part of this movement.

Popular posts from this blog

Sustainable Living: Sunscreens

This is an important topic and so I want to get the most important things out of the way first:

Chemical sunscreens containing the following ingredients contribute to coral bleaching: 
OxybenzoneOctinoxateOctocrylene (used to also stabilize avobenzone)4-methylbenzylidine camphorAnything containing Parabens Don't be part of the problem and avoid using them! It's important to note that claims on sunscreens are not regulated and therefore, companies can put the wording "coral reef safe" on the packaging even though they contain the above chemicals. This is misleading if not outright false. Instead use "physical" sun screens that contain non-nanoparticle zink oxide. Physical sun screens differ from chemical sunscreens in that the sit ontop of the skin to reflect or scatter UVA/B rays away from the skin before it reaches it. Chemical sunscreens absorb the UVA/B rays instead to neutralize them.

To be clear, I am not proposing not using sunscreen! Instead use phys…

Focus on Algae - Part II: Energy

In the last focus section, we discussed how algae can be used to treat waste waters and mitigate CO2 in the process. Today's post will explore how algae can be used for energy generation. As already mentioned in the last time, biofuels have become very visible as of late due to environmental, economical and geopolitcal reasons. If at the heart of traditional biofuel generation lies in the creation and decomposition of biomass, then it would be easy to substitute corn or other less controversial land-based plants with algae. Although a lot of attention is paid to the use of algae in biofuel generation, and this article also mainly focusses on this aspect, it should be noted that algae can also be used to generate electricity by direct combustion of the biomass. Plans for these kinds of schemes are already on the way in Venice and a few other European locations [1].

Algae and Biofuels

What happens to the biomass after it has been created depends on the type of biofuel that is desired…

Sustainable Living: One man's trash...

Since Earth Week is starting tomorrow, I wanted share with you some concrete ways of how individuals like you and me can make an impact on a wider scale. I then also wanted to use this example to challenge everyone to think creatively about the larger context.

So you know how the saying goes: "One man's trash is another one's treasure." Today, I want to talk to you about garbage. Plastic garbage specifically. Plastic is quite a wondrous material. Made from oil by man with just a few additives can turn this polymer into so many different sorts of plastics with so many different properties from thin and flimsy plastic bags, to the carpet on which I am standing, to this plastic bottle from which I am drinking.