The Sugar Rush: 4 companies gold-dig for low-cost biorefining sugars

September 15, 2011 |

What this country really needs is a good, five-cent sugar. Got one? Riches await.

One of the most interesting developments in recent months has been the emergence, out of stealth, of a number of companies focused on providing low-cost cellulosic sugars.

As Phycal CEO Kevin Berner said, “if you can make low-cost sugar, you can make anything.”

Among the contenders

Several well-known companies have re-purposed or expanded in this direction in recent months. For example, KL Energy, which at one time had one of the first US-based cellulosic ethanol demonstration-scale processing facilities (in Upton, Wyoming), finds itself increasingly involved in Brazil, in partnership with Petrobras to unlock the potential in cellulosics.

A few months back, Codexis announced that they had purchased some of their IP back from Maxygen and were heading in the direction of developing enzymes to unlock low-cost sugars from sugarcane bagasse, with a target of producing surfactants and other products in the fast emerging field of renewable chemicals.

But an equally – or arguably – more interesting series of emerging companies have been those that are formed with a focus on producing low-cost sugars which can be utilized by the likes of Amyris, Solazyme, LS9 and others in the production of higher value fuels and chemicals.

Three companies have been, over the past 12 months, been emerging from stealth mode and onto the Digest radar. Though, doubtless, others will emerge, here are four that have begun to attract a lot of attention: Proterro, Comet Biorefining, Renmatix (formerly known as Sriya Innovations), and HCL Cleantech.

Comet is backed by undisclosed investors, but big names are backing Proterro (Battelle Ventures and Braemar) and Renmatix (Kleiner, Perkins) and HCL (Khosla Ventures, Burrill & Company).

What makes the storyline intriguing is this: Solazyme president and CTO Harrison Dillon has joined the Proterro scientific advisory board, Amyris CEO John Melo has joined the Renmatix board. The links between Codexis and Raizen are deep and true, and KL Energy has partnered closely with Petrobras. In turn, HCL Cleantech has been closely linked with Virent and LS9.

Leaving a number of companies, who are equally dependent on low-cost cellulosic sugars, this week perhaps wondering exactly how they are going to lock down their source. That may leave Comet Biorefining as a significant partnership prize. Comet is now just emerging from stealth, after being founded by former Mascoma CTO Andrew Richard when he concluded that the early high-value problem in biofuels was the chase for low-cost cellulosic sugars. So why not chase sugars? Richards decided.

Of course, we may find that companies find themselves chasing Comet, as one of the few companies still available for dating.

For sure, Proterro, Codexis and Renmatix will cry horror at the suggestion that they are in any way becoming captive companies – for surely they will and must do business with all, or many, comers. But it is hard to see Renmatix doing business with LS9 while the CEO of Amyris sits on the board. Or, perhaps not, in what would be a sign that we have moved farther into the world of co-opetition than ever before.

The latest from Proterro

Proterro, the developer of Protose, a fermentation-ready sugar feedstock has established a three-member advisory board of experts in the fields of renewable energy, biofuels and chemical production. Making up the board are Harrison F. Dillon, Thomas Dries, and Christos Papadopoulos, said Proterro CEO Kef Kasdin.

Proterro’s patent-pending biosynthetic process combines an engineered photosynthetic microorganism with an advanced high-density, modular solid-phase bioreactor to provide a fermentation-ready feedstock, called Protose. Produced by combining only water, carbon dioxide, sunlight and nutrients in the biosynthetic process, Protose is projected to cost less than such feedstocks as sugar cane and cellulosics, and can be used to produce a variety of commercial scale fuels and chemicals through standard industrial fermentation methods.

More the about advisory board members:

•    Harrison F. Dillon, Ph.D., is a co-founder, the president and the chief technology officer of high-value renewable oil producer Solazyme, A pioneer and thought leader in the renewables field, he is an inventor on more than 30 Solazyme patents and patent applications. Dr. Dillon’s diversified background includes a law degree from Duke University and a doctorate in genetics from the University of Utah.

•    Thomas Dries is founder and managing partner of NCN Partners, which specializes in providing strategic direction and analysis for resolving critical business development and supply issues facing clients in renewable chemicals and fuels markets. As vice president of business development for Gevo Inc. [NASDAQ: GEVO], Mr. Dries led market development efforts for renewable fuels and chemicals based on biobutanol and established partnerships with ethanol producers.

•    Christos G. Papadopoulos, Ph.D., is a chemical engineer with almost four decades of experience in petrochemical industry research and production. He led BP Chemicals’ efforts that resulted in Department of Energy funding of the Green Olefins Machine project, and served as senior advisor for BP’s Research & Education Clean Energy Centre partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

The latest from Renmatix

Renmatix, the leading producer of cellulosic sugars, is pleased to announce Fred Moesler, a former Dow Chemical, NatureWorks and ZeaChem engineer and modeling specialist, has joined as vice president of process technology. He will oversee the evolution of the company’s proprietary, low-cost biomass-to-sugars process from demonstration scale to commercial deployment.

“Cheap cellulosic sugars will invigorate the entire bioindustrial space with improved economics. They’ll allow renewable fuels, chemicals and materials to be cost-competitive with petroleum-based products for the first time,” said Moesler.

While at Dow Chemical, Fred had an active role in the start-up and optimization of Dow’s first fermentation facility with Dow AgroSciences, which produces bio-based agricultural chemicals.

In his new role at Renmatix, Moesler will oversee pilot and demonstration cellulose hydrolysis units currently operating in Georgia and work closely with the research and development team to optimize the commercial process design of Renmatix’s Plantrose technology.

The latest from Comet Biorefining

In Ontario, Comet Biorefining announced that it has signed an exclusive agreement with Fulton Engineered Specialities Inc., a leading low cost manufacturer of modular process equipment and systems. Under the agreement, Fulton will provide turn‐key manufacture of Comet’s modular cellulosic sugar process systems on an exclusive basis. Fulton Engineered Specialties is a designer and fabricator of custom pressure equipment and skid mounted, designed, fabricated and tested chemical process systems.

Comet Biorefining has demonstrated its cellulosic sugar technology at pilot scale and is currently scaling up to commercial applications. Comet Biorefining’s goal is to license its Cellulosic Sugar Technology worldwide

Comet CEO Andrew Richard said, “The key to success for the biofuels and bioproducts industry is low cost sugar. A significant component of low cost sugar is low capital cost. Fulton is a world leader in low cost, custom equipment manufacture, with operations in several countries.”

The latest from HCL Cleantech

In July, the US Department of Energy awarded $9 million dollars to LS9 and its partner HCL Cleantech to improve and demonstrate an integrated process to convert biomass feedstocks into fermentable sugars and then into diesel and other biofuel and biochemical products. As part of the DOE grant, the two companies are combining their proprietary technologies to produce drop-in advanced biofuels and other valuable bio-based chemicals mainly from wood waste and other agriculture waste.

“We are very pleased with this award and look forward to working with our grant partner, HCL Cleantech, to deliver a successful integrated project,” said Ed Dineen, LS9 President and CEO. “Demonstrating compatibility and integration of LS9′s broad technology platform with next generation biomass based sugar technologies is a key strategic objective for the Company.”

Earlier this year, the Israel-United States Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD-F), US Dept. of Energy and Israel’s Ministry of National Infrastructure awarded $900,000 to the HCL Cleantech Virent Energy Systems. The grant will support Virent’s conversion of HCL’s pine tree sugars into drop-in biofuels and covers almost half of the $2.1 million total project cost.

The BIRD project uses HCL CleanTech’s proprietary conversion technologies that produce cost-effective non-food sugars with Virent’s BioForming technology that converts plant sugars into hydrocarbon molecules.

HCL CleanTech will also provide pine sugars to a leading biopolymer producer for evaluating fermentation into hydrocolloids that historically are produced from cane or corn sugars for use in a broad range of personal care, food and beverage applications.

HCL has developed a biomass treatment process made of proprietary extraction and separation technologies combined with concentrated hydrochloric acid hydrolysis, which deliver near to maximum yields in high grade cellulosic sugars, lignin and tall oils. So far the company has proven it can efficiently extract sugars, lignin and tall oils from softwood, hardwood, bagasse, and corn stover.

The Bottom Line

In a decade, the industry has gone from accessing sugars from starch and sugarcane, to cellulosic biomass including woods and energy grasses, to waste gases, and now to a series of solutions out of synthetic biology.

What may surprise outside observers is the distinct possibility that industrial biotech will find a route to low-cost sugars, at scale, from microbial fermentation faster then through the pre-treatment and saccharification strategies developed in the race (or some would say, crawl) towards cellulosic ethanol.

Far too early to be calling winners, but the fact that its a race at all would be surprising to those who placed the bets on cellulosic processing in the mid 2000s. The increasing pace of invention and commercialization in synthetic biology is making a race of cheap sugar, and who knows where next the biologists will point their genomes.

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