BP, Unlilever among investors pouring $49M into ZeaChem, Chromatin, Agradis

October 26, 2011 |

New investments and new investors enter or double down on sorghum, sweet sorghum, castor and cellulosic biofuels

There’s a rumor going around the biofuels and biomaterials business that today represents one of the most difficult periods to raise capital. Apparently, the rumors did not reach ZeaChem, Chromatin or Synthetic Genomics, which this week made separate announcement that they had raised $49 million in fresh venture rounds. Chromatin raised $10 million in a series D round, ZeaChem raised $19 million in a series C round, and Synthetic Genomics raised $20 million in a series A round for its new spin-off Agradis.

Among the investors who also apparently did not receive the “don’t invest now” memorandum were Unilever, BP, Firelake Capital, Globespan Capital Partners, Mohr Davidow Ventures, PrairieGold Venture Partners and Spring Ventures, Quantitative Investment Holdings, the Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund, Illinois Ventures, Plenus and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, among others.

Some of the naysayers were relieved to note that BP Ventures had at least poured money into an ag-biotech venture, in the form of Chromatin, and thereby avoided doubling down in associating with something so prosaic as, say, advanced cellulosic biofuels. Then again, Ross Pillari, former chairman and CEO of BP America and a former director of the American Petroleum Institute, joined the ZeaChem board of directors. Former TPC Group CEO Charles Shaver also joined the board.


Chromatin announced completion of a $10 million first closing of its Series D financing round that included two strategic investors — BP Ventures and Unilever Technology Ventures — as well as three investors who participated in earlier rounds of financing: Quantitative Investment Holdings, the Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund, and Illinois Ventures.

The additional capital will help fund Chromatin’s programs to develop supply chains of energy crop feedstocks for producers of renewable energy. Drawing on capital raised in earlier rounds of venture funding, as well as revenue from its seed and technology sales, Chromatin has launched production-scale tests in electricity-generating plants of its specially bred non-food sorghum crops that can grow on marginal land using less water and fewer chemicals than other energy crops.

“This investment signals BP’s continued commitment to renewable energy feedstocks”, said Justin Adams, Head of BP Ventures. “Chromatin is beginning to develop an exciting bioenergy business with their sorghum platform, and we are interested in understanding how we could deploy their feedstock technologies in our own activities.”


ZeaChem announced it has raised $19 million in Series C financing, led by Birchmere Ventures, and partner Sean D.S. Sebastian has joined the ZeaChem Board of Directors. Follow on investment was provided by existing investors Firelake Capital, Globespan Capital Partners, Mohr Davidow Ventures, PrairieGold Venture Partners and Spring Ventures.

“As an industry leader in the advanced biofuels and bio-based chemicals industries, ZeaChem’s proven capability to produce economical and sustainable petroleum alternatives is an innovation we are pleased to add to our portfolio,” said Sean D. S. Sebastian, partner of Birchmere Ventures. “ZeaChem has an experienced team in place to successfully implement its business strategy and transform the fuel and chemical industries.”

“ZeaChem appreciates the new investment from Birchmere Ventures and the continuing support and confidence from our existing investors as we commercialize our highly efficient, economical and flexible biorefinery technology,” Imbler added.

ZeaChem’s 250,000 GPY integrated demonstration biorefinery in Boardman, Oregon, will begin to come online in 2011. The company is now developing commercial biorefineries for the production of advanced biofuels and bio-based chemicals.

Synthetic Genomics and Agradis

In California, Synthetic Genomics and Mexico-based Plenus announced the formation of a new company, Agradis. The privately held agricultural biotechnology company will focus on developing and commercializing products to sustainably improve crop production efficiency using new advances in genomics and plant breeding. Agradis has also announced the closing of a $20 million Series A financing round which will be used to establish the company infrastructure and to support product development and commercialization.

Agradis is initially focusing on two key areas: producing superior crops through advances in genomics and developing crop protection and plant growth enhancing products using beneficial, plant-associated microorganisms.
The first two crops that Agradis will concentrate on are castor and sweet sorghum. These are ideal candidates because they are high yielding crops that can be grown on land not currently used for food production and have great potential for yield improvement using genomic technologies. Agradis has licensed the extensive germplasm collections, breeding programs, and cultivars developed by the experts at Plenus, and genomics expertise from SGI.

Building on the decades of microbial genomics expertise and advances in synthetic genomics technologies by SGI founders and scientists, Agradis will also develop microbial-based plant growth promoters and crop protection products. Initially the company will focus these efforts on the corn and wheat applications which represent multi-billion dollar markets worldwide.

Biologically based crop protection and growth enhancing products offer many advantages to traditional chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They are much more environmentally friendly, offer improved ways for crops to utilize more nutrients from their environments reducing the need for fertilizers, enhance the plants’ ability to resist pests, and more effectively fight plant diseases.

Agradis has licensed from SGI a comprehensive library and proprietary screening tools for more than 150 categories of microbes associated with grass plants. The team is currently producing many promising biochemical and plant based assays for several desirable activities such as inhibition of “wheat scab” and microorganisms that increase yield. Many of these microbes have not previously been associated with plant health or disease and thus offer a unique market advantage.

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Category: Fuels

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