Hot Spots: The Top 10 Advanced Bioeconomy Places to Watch in California

August 30, 2017 |

California is for many the “home of innovation” but almost everyone thinks of Silicon Valley in this respect, or perhaps the Bay Area as a whole. And there are innovative companies in huge numbers, for sure— but you’d be surprised how broad the innovation story is across the entire Golden State.

The sexy PR is almost always and rightly focused on San Francisco and its environs — but some of the largest industrialization efforts for advanced technology take place in the rural areas that provide the feedstock, infrastructure and an expansive place to do business. The advanced labs of the National Lab system, the universities, the rural sites for commercialization — these are all a unique part of California’s bursting, booming bioeconomy — and we highlight them today.

1. Emeryville/Berkeley

As we noted in our story The Bio Incredibles:

Yes, it’s the Bio-Incredibles, synth biologists with recombinant powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Bio-Incredibles: who can change the course of mighty genomes, bend DNA in their bare hands. Hidden in Emeryville, California, mild-mannered high-tech center for a great metropolis, they fight a never-ending battle for science, progress, and a Series A investment round.

Who’s there in Emeryville and its immediate neighbor, Berkeley? Organizations like Amyris, Total New Energies, iMicrobes, Mango Materials, Kiverdi, Lygos, Lawrence Berkeley’s Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit, Slingshot Biosciences, The Joint BioEnergy Institute, Dagamite, 6SensorLabs and Radiant Genomics.

There’s Caribou Biosciences with its revolutionary CRISPR-Cas technology for gene editing, which most recently raised $44.6m. There’s Perfect Day, with milk crafted without the cow — more nutritious, safe, and sustainable than factory-farmed dairy. There’s Ripple Foods, which also makes a milk product from pea protein. There’s Spider Couture: The emergence of spider silk for applications from fashion to protection, and Bolt Threads raised $50 million in a Series C venture round not long ago, on top of the $40 million raised in the Series B, and Patagonia joined as a strategic partner to deploy the technology at some future date. More on all those here.

There’s Zymergen, which raised $130 million in an epic Series B funding: You pack up your production microbe — currently making enzymes, PlantBottle precursors, flavors, fragrances, advanced polymers, therapeutics and so on. You ship to Emeryville. California. Zymergen uses a fleet of computers and algorithms to come up with microbial modifications. Then, in come the robots to snip-snip and clip-clip the DNA to perfect performance at industrial scale.

Zymergen gets Lit: raises $130M in epic Series B

2. Silicon Valley: from Redwood City to San Jose via Palo Alto

Not far behind the Emeryville Express in terms of innovative power is the more traditional stomping grounds for venture capitalists, the towns of Silicon Valley, anchored from Pal Alto by Stanford University.

In June, we reported that Stanford University scientists reported on a promising technology to make renewable ethanol from water, carbon dioxide and electricity delivered through a copper catalyst. In another sign of advanced energy progress, we reported last November that an interdisciplinary team at Stanford has made significant strides toward solving the solar energy storage issue, demonstrating the most efficient means yet of storing electricity captured from sunlight in the form of chemical bonds. And Byogy Renewables is right there with its ATJ fuels technology that’s led to considerable activity in Australia among other places.

But it’s not all advanced energy research — far from it. The Nutrition Revolution is happening down in the Valley, too. As we highlighted in Barbarians at the Plate: Can the new techs crash through in nutrition? (that’s here.)

Perhaps most intriguing is the case of Calysta, which produces its FeedKind protein via a continuous fermentation process of a natural microorganism, using the world’s only commercially-validated gas fermentation process. The Teesside plant has met its design parameters, including key commercial metrics such as yield and productivity. We reported in May that the facility has successfully maintained a continuous fermentation for eight weeks, and has produced over four metric tons of commercially representative FeedKind protein to date.

3. San Diego

Now, we move downstate towards the Mexican border, where San Diego has become the international home of advanced algae research and a lot more. Think Genomatica and Synthetic Genomics as a starting point for perennially disruptive companies with big projects and name-brand global partners.

The Crop revolution has a nexus in San Diego, too — among notables are the cluster of companies backed by Finistere Ventures such as ZeaKal — but also there’s long-time, now established leader Cibus (more here), which has developed plant and microbial platforms enabling it to become a world leader in advanced breeding technologies, generally, and advanced non-transgenic breeding, specifically.

The research hubs are US San Diego, the University of San Diego and also San Diego State. From the UCSD side we reported earlier this month that a team of engineers has developed stretchable fuel cells that generate 10 times more power per surface area than any existing wearable biofuel cells. The devices could be used to power a range of wearable devices. The biofuel cells are equipped with an enzyme that oxidizes the lactic acid present in human sweat to generate current. This turns the sweat into a source of power.

But we dangled the magic “algae” word, and let’s return to that. There’s a host of practitioners not only in San Diego and out west along the Imperial Valley and to the shores of the Salton Sea near Mecca. And South Torrey Pines Drive remains in many ways the Rodeo Drive of Algae.

Recently, we reported the DOE’s selection of three projects to reduce algae biofuels costs, and top of the list was Global Algae Innovations. In partnership with Sandia National Laboratories, University of California at San Diego – Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the J. Craig Venter Institute, GAI will deliver a tool for low cost, rapid analysis of pond microbiota, gather data on the impacts of pond ecology, and develop new cultivation methods that utilize this information to achieve greater algal productivity.

But then there’s the Navy, too, always a major presence in this part of California. And when Secretary of the Nay Ray Mabus and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack came together to celebrate the deployment of commercial-scale, cost-competitive military-spec biofuels, they came down to San Diego to watch the biofuel-powered Carrier Strike Group head off. More on that here.

5. Sacramento/Davis

No survey of California Hot Spots would be complete without recognizing the strong catalytic role of Sacramento and especially the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard, administered by the California Air Resources Board, and the California Energy Commission.

This week, news arrived from Sacramento that the California Energy Commission is offering a $3 million grant funding opportunity entitled Renewable Intermediate Fuel Production for Jet Fuel in Heavy-Duty Transportation Sector. Complete details are here.

This solicitation seeks innovative processes for production of a bio-intermediate fuel, also known as bio-oil, derived from California based feedstocks such as urban woody biomass, agricultural, and forest residues. These intermediate fuels will be used for sustainable low-carbon fungible jet fuel production.

But there’s been quite a range of projects supported by CEC. Earlier this year, the Energy Commission awarded $5.7M to a group from Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC for Wood-to-Fuel for California’s Transportation Sector Using Autothermal Pyrolysis and $4.57M to Biogas Energy Inc. for Conversion of Wood Biomass to Bio- Oil in an Ablative Fast Pyrolysis Reactor.

And, it’s not just government in Sacramento. Propel Fuels is there, pushing forward on the delivery and adoption of renewable fuels at the pump via renewable diesel and E85 ethanol. Another primary reason: the huge presence of UC Davis as an agricultural research center. Among companies that have formed in the UC Davis ecosystem, Arcadia Biosciences (mMore here) develops and commercializes agricultural traits and products that bring value to growers, processors and consumers while benefitting the environment and enhancing human health.

Meanwhile, there’s Origin Materials, which began life as Micromidas, raised $50M this year, and was founded by two UC Davis grads, OM’s technology was described to us recently as “is an exciting new breakthrough development”. Origin looks for underutilized feedstocks like cardboard, wood waste and agricultural residues — and has “unlocked furan chemistry” to link these residues to a set of high-yield reactions, they report.

3. San Francisco and environs

Then, there’s the city of San Francisco itself — and especially a cluster of companies down near the airport in South San Francisco. For one, that’s where Intrexon is hunkered down developing isobutanol from methane, and developing new crop traits through developed and acquired technologies. Also, there’s Granular, a software and analytics platform that helps farmers manage and have visibility of data to operate more efficiently, and which not long ago raised $50M. Let’s not forget Twist Bioscience, which is raising gobs of money for its DNA synthesis platform; they are located along the piers of Mission Bay. And NexSteppe has been always at the top ebnd of the Hot 40 and Hot 50 rankings for its exotically interesting and high-value work in establishing sorghum

A couple of divisions are here as well of Corbion (the old Solazyme operation), and of REG Life Sciences (once LS9). And we covered the San Francisco scene in more detail in: How Big Data is Disrupting Agriculture from Biological Discovery to Farming Practices.

6. Keyes

Moving into the inland San Joaquin Valley, there’s the Keyes project that Aemetis runs — a 60 million gallons corn ethanol plant that lately has been home to a whole lot more. We reported earlier this month that Aemetis is now producing cellulosic ethanol from orchard waste, utilizing technologies from Aemetis, LanzaTech and InEnTec. The plant is a continuously operating demonstration facility located in Richland, Washington — but Aemetis is building a 10 million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol production facility in Keyes. (More on all that here).

7. Madera

More cellulosic ethanol? Head a little more south along Highway 99 until, between Merced and Fresno, you reach Madera. That’s where Pacific Ethanol and Edeniq have partnered to enable the production of cellulosic ethanol at Pacific Ethanol’s Madera plant using Edeniq’s Pathway and Cellunator Technologies. The Madera plant has a total annual production capacity of 40 million gallons, and is expected to produce up to one million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol with Edeniq’s Pathway process. Installation is expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2017. We reported on that here.

We might add, Edeniq itself, which we highlighted in The Billion Dollar Baby, is just a few more miles south along Highway 99, between Fresno and Bakersfield, that’s Edeniq HQ in Visalia.

8. Ft. Hunter Liggett and China Lake

Now, specifically, Ft. Hunter Liggett and China Lake Naval Air Station have almost nothing to do with each other geographically, but they are both significant military installations, and there’s been quite a lot of activity on DoD sites — both in deployment and in highly advanced R&D.

In March we reported that Sierra Energy has teamed with the Army to trial its FastOx Gasifier technology that turns MSW into hydrogen for use in vehicles, carbon monoxide for electricity production and liquid metal as well as slag for reuse in other industries. The gasifer burns at 4,000 degrees F, hotter than the inside of a volcano, allowing it to process anything that is put in it. Good news for fans of Davis — the actual test is there at Sierra Energy’s HQ.

We never try to miss an opportunity to shine a light on the R&D taking place in advanced fuels at China Lake, and here are three. Blue Skies: the high-value opportunities above us for advanced biofuels, and 9 advanced molecules that could revolutionize jet and missile fuel  and Can warplanes fly farther, carry more weapons, with advanced biofuels?

9. Los Angeles and the Inland Empire

The Southland is led by San Diego in most respects, but UC Riverside plays a role and let’s not forget an amazing project right in the heart of Los Angeles County as well.

We reported last week that Vertimass gained its intermediate technology validation with the US DOE’s Bioenergy Technology Office, which verified performance against negotiated milestones. BETO verification effectively opens the door for Vertimass to move to demonstration scale of its technology for converting ethanol into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel blend stocks and the chemical building blocks benzene, toluene, and xylene.

But let’s shine a light also on AltAirFuels, which is producing jet fuel and diesel at commercial scale. In march 2012, we reported that United Airlines made history by becoming the first U.S. airline to begin use of commercial-scale volumes of sustainable aviation biofuel. United has agreed to purchase up to 15 million gallons of sustainable biofuel from AltAir Paramount over a three-year period.

Not far from the Inland Empire down Highway 78 is Carlsbad, and that’s home to Verdezyne. They’re working on their fist commercial right now, and as we reported in March 2016, the prospects are promising, as seen by Connell Brothers move in signing an exclusive to distribute 2 million pound per year sales with Verdezyne

And Temecula is a bubbling biotech hub of its own — home to a major Abbott Labs facility and Millipore, and not to mention more than 30 wineries in its role as anchor of Southern California’s wine country — and home to The Digest on the US west coast.

10. At Sea: The Catalina Channel

We couldn’t resist this off-shore option.

In May, we reported that the California Coastal Commission is set to vote on May 10 whether Marine Bioenergy’s ARPA-E funded open sea kelp farming project in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies can go forward. The team seeks to trial commercial-scale kelp farming using the technique it has developed for biofuel feedstock in the Catalina Channel in Southern California.

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