Sunday, January 20, 2008

Local Biofuels Event: Clean Perspectives (January 23rd)

Just wanted to let everyone know (or remind you) about a great biofuels event coming up in a couple days. It's not too late to sign up! RSVP by January 22nd to

The Clean Perspectives event will be held on January 23rd at the Marriott in Copley (110 Huntington Ave. in Boston).

Clean Perspectives is a series of fireside chats / networking events bringing together politicians, investors, entrepreneurs, and policy experts to discuss their visions for the future
and answer questions from the community at large on Cleantech.

This month’s panel will discuss technology and policy innovations in Biofuels in Massachusetts, and will feature:
  • Massachusetts State Senator Michael Morrissey
  • Massachusetts States Senator Benjamin B. Downing
  • Jef Sharp - President and CEO of SunEthanol. SunEthanol is leading the development of turning biomass into low cost ethanol.
  • Bruce Jamerson - Chief Executive Officer of Mascoma Corporation. Mascoma is a leading bioengineering firm focused on developing and delivering the next generation of low cost cellulosic biomass-based fuels.
  • Irwin Heller - CEO of Twin Rivers Technologies. Twin Rivers is a local biofuels company using vegetable oil as the primary ingredient.
  • Moderated by Jim Matheson – General Partner of Flagship Ventures.

Clean Perspectives is hosted by Trent Yang (Globespan Capital Partners) and Leland Cheung (Comcast Interactive Capital).

Saturday, September 29, 2007

More on synthetic biology for biofuels... Economist Article: "Ethanol, Schmethanol"...

Synthetic biofuels have apparently captured the attention of the media in a big way in recent weeks. Just one week after our own Energy Club Biofuels Blog post on synthetic biology companies working on advanced biofuels, the Economist came out with a nice article on the subject.

(One always has to wonder if Vijay Vaitheswareen, MIT alum and Economist Energy/Enviro editor, is the author of any given Economist energy article.... It was a pleasure having him speak at the MIT Energy Conference last year)

A brief run down on the highlights here:

The article discussed the move toward higher energy density/lower water absorbing tendency bio-butanol by a joint venture between Dupont and BP. Interestingly, the article claims that BP whas plans to start selling bio-butanol blended fuels in the next few weeks. I was not aware that they were deploying butanol on such an accelerated schedule...

A couple of firms with initial roots in drug development were also featured:

  • Codexis, a CA-Bay Area based firm, is a leading developer of enyzymes with new functionalities using molecular evolution. It's main commercial product is the enzyme system that is used to make the chemical precursor for Lipitor, a Pfizer cholesterol drug. They first got interested in biofuels by the possibility of making enzymes to create octanol (8-carbon alcohol = highest energy density alcohol you can get before freezing becomes an issue. Polar molecules like alcohols like to bind to each other, unlike non-polar molucules like hydrocarbons, and thus freeze more easily). Their CEO, Alan Shaw, now says they are working on another undisclosed biofuel molecule. Interesting......
  • Amyris Biotechnologyies, another CA-Bay Area firm that was mentioned in the last post here, was founded by Jay Keasling, perhaps the world's most famous synthetic biologist and a prof at U.C. Berkeley. The firm was also initially focused on drug development (artemisinin - an antimalarial), but has re-oriented itself to focus on biofuels. Artemisin is in the iseprenoid chemical class (which includes rubber) and this class of chemicals is Amyris' focus in biofuels as well.

A couple of pure-play synthetic biology biofuels companies were mentioned as well:

  • LS9, also a Bay Area firm that was mentioned in our last post, is claimed by the article to be focused on using synthetic biology for fatty acid production - one of the key inputs in the production of biodiesel. The company plans to also develop organisms that will produce long chain fatty acids (too long for biodiesel production) along with syntheic biological pathways to clip the oxygen atoms out of the fatty acids to make pure hydrocarbons or what it calls bio-crude.
  • Synthetic Genomics, a Rockville, MD based Craig Venter biofuels startup mentioned in the last posting here, was also mentioned prominently in the article, but with no details on the exact technology approach they are using. My favorite excerpt: "... Venter goes as far as to posit the idea of clinical trials for biofuels - presumably pitting one againist another, perhaps with petroleum-based products acting as the control..."

I am very happy to see the biotech industry re-orienting itself from only drugs to include energy. And interestingly, the biotech industry may well be one of the most suitable high-tech industries to develop and deploy new liquid fuels at scale, especially with the industry's expertise and understanding of public policy and regulation and the industry's long product development cycles (inherent to energy as well). However, of course, not all lessons from the drug industry, such as drug trials, apply so well to energy. :)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Synthetic Biology Bio-Fuels Startups...

Lots of activity in synthetic biology biofuels startups....

Amyris Biotechnologies, a CA Bay Area-based startup using synthetic biology to create fuels to replace petroleum, recently announced that it has raised the first portion of a $70M VC investment round (on top of $20M it previously raised from Khosla Ventures, Keiner Perkins, and TPG Ventures).

Amyris has plans to make bio-gasoline, bio-diesel, and bio-jet fuels and hopes to hit the market by 2010.

The basic strategy is to genetically/metabolically engineer organisms that can convert sugars/cellulose into fuel molecules that do not mix with water, so that they are easily separated out, avoiding the financial and energy costs associated with distilling ethanol. And then the challenge is doing it as an industrial scale. After this investment, Amyris is valued at $470 (!).

There are three other main players in this area: LS9, Gevo, and Synthetic Genomics.

LS9 is a CA Bay Area startup initially funded by Flagship Ventures and Khosla Ventures. MIT alum and Energy Club member, David Berry, has played a very active role in founding and growing this company, in part for which he was awarded Technology Review magazine's Innovator of the Year. The university based co-founders were Chris Somerville (Stanford) and George Church (MIT-Harvard).

Gevo is based in Pasadena, CA and has been financed in part by Khosla Ventures and Virgin Fuels. Gevo has licensed tech from the labs of Frances Arnold at Caltech.

Synthetic Genomics, a Craig Venter startup based in Rockville, MD alongside Venter's researcher centers and also with offices in La Jolla, CA, has developed a minimal genome bacterium that they hope will give them a key advantage in engineering organisms to make fuels. They recently raised a 2nd round of financing, after which they were valued at $300M. MIT Sloan alum and Energy Club member Gaye Bok is currently their head of business development.

Will any of these companies 1.) successfully create organisms that can create hydrocarbons and 2.) more importantly will they be able to produce at scale at a reasonable cost?

Weigh in!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

BOE Biomass Program Lunch Talk

On September 11, 2007 Jacques Beaudry-Losique, the manager of the Office of the Biomass Program for the DOE was on campus talking with facility and students. I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend a lunch seminar with about 10 other students of varying backgrounds. Jacques presented the goals of his office and where he saw the biofuels industry heading in the next 15-20 years. He did a great job of keeping the talk more of a discussion and did his best to answer the wide range of questions from all of the students.

It was great to see that MIT's finest didn't hold back, asking direct questions about the program one of which I really liked....Why other biofuels beyond ethanol largely being looked at? His reponse to this was that the US needed something readily available and easily scaleable in a short period of time, and that was ethanol. Which definitely makes sense depending on what your goals are. But I was surprized to still see so much of the programs budget devoted to ethanol, though at least cellulosic ethanol. Who then is looking at alternatives? And at what point does the government additionally support those activities?


Thursday, September 13, 2007

MIT Energy Club - Hidden Biofuels Resources

Over the years, the MIT Energy Club has amassed a nice set of biofuels resources. I thought I'd bring them out from the darkness and put links all in one place....

MIT Energy Club Discussion: "Biodiesel: The Other Biofuel" (excellent slides on biodiesel from Kristian Bodek!)

MIT Energy Conference 2007: "Emerging Biofuels: Which Pathways will Enable Scale?"
- Slides
- Video

MIT Energy Conference 2006: "Biofuels Futures: What Role will Biofuels Play in the U.S. by 2020 and How will We Get There?"
- Slides
- Video