The Buzz from Orlando: Heard on the floor at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology

May 2, 2012 |

At BIO’s World Congress, there are the presentations on stage, and the off-stage trade in rumors.

Miscanthus dead? Iogen dead? Canada on the march? RFS amendophobia? We sort out the fact from the fiction.

The World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology is underway in Orlando, with just about every company in attendance, 900 people in all, a remarkable gathering which BIO appears to effortlessly pull off each year.

So, what’s the buzz? We’ll go through the true and false.

1. Something amiss with Miscanthus.

There was a rumor going around that BP and Mendel Biotechnology had discontinued their relationship, quietly, in the past few months, and that BP is looking desperately for new sources of feedstock, including sending scientists to look at major plant collections on the basis of “show me something new.”

Fiction. Last month, Mendel and BP Biofuels signed a four-year agreement to conduct a demonstration field trial of Mendel’s PowerCane Miscanthus and evaluate its performance as feedstock for biofuel production at BP Biofuels’ demonstration plant at Jennings, Louisiana.

A total of 100 acres of PowerCane Miscanthus will be planted this year near BP’s Jennings facility and the first biomass harvest from these fields is expected in 2013.

Having said that, its entirely plausible that BP is considering alternative feedstocks, and likely is accessing collections of new candidates on a regular basis.

2. This, from Twitter.

#BP Biofuels CEO Phil New talks about plans for major new #biofuels plant in Florida at #BIOWC:

Fiction. . While Phil New did address BIO in the opening plenary session Monday, his themes were generally global in nature and he didn’t tout the Florida project at all – in fact, missing the opportunity to talk about the Highlands project surprised some attendees and sparked some speculation that BP’s interest in that project was waning in light of more spectacular opportunities in Brazil.

It is true that BP officials were generally on edge all week – but that appears to be generally related the status of the RFS.

3. Dyadic and Abengoa in major hookup.

There was buzzing on the floor about an expansion of Dyadic’s arrangements with Abengoa, regarding rights to use Dyadic’s C1 platform technology to develop, manufacture and sell enzymes for use in second generation biorefining processes. Some of the buzz was in the context of discussions about the vertically integrated approach used by, for example, Dupont and BP – versus the outsourcing for enzymes in the case of Chemtex and Abengoa.

Fact. Abengoa Bioenergy New Technologies has agreed to pay Dyadic $5.5 million for an expansion of its rights under the non-exclusive license agreement the parties entered into in February 2009.

4. Iogen dead?

Rumor going around had Iogen shutting its doors and Shell exiting biofuels, following cancellation of the Iogen Energy project in Manitoba.

Fiction. “The [Shell] strategy remains the same,” said Shell spokesman Peter Snowdon by telephone from London Monday, “though the tactics may change as the market evolves.” Iogen Corporation will continue to employ approximately 110 people at its Ottawa headquarters and “plans to expand its line of offerings with new technology for the production of advanced and cellulosic biofuels.”

5. Major players visibly nervous about and focused on the stability of the RFS.

The rumor going around was that major bioenergy companies like Dupont, BP and Novozymes are so nervous about stander assets that they will desperately trade off stability with the Renewable Fuel Standard in return for agreeing to wind down all other supports for bioenergy.

Fiction. For sure, major companies are in full-court press to preserve RFS2, and a material alteration by the Congress could cause unintended shockwaves – not so much in project cancellations as much as in a halt or slowdown in future development. But the industry, generally, is in a “keep everything as it is” mode, including existing provisions such as the current Farm Bill programs and the cellulosic tax credit.

6. Holy smokes – look at all the Canadians. The north on the march?

There were numerous comments on the army from the north that arrived to participate in BIO – a sign of a resurgence in Canadian industrial biotechnology, asked the rumor-distributors?

Fiction. Lots of activity and good things happening up north, but its more business as usual than business as unusual. Canada has always been a big supporter of BIO and always has a large delegation – in fact, BIO will be held next year in Montreal.

7. Greenfields are out, co-location is in.

Fact. Some greenfield projects will continue – but the trend is unmistakably towards looking for locations where infrastructure and partners are already in place. Clusters are likely to emerge – built around existing ethanol plants, for example, or a major, integrated agribusiness hub such as envisioned in the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT).

Case in point, yesterday, Butamax announced that two additional ethanol producers have joined their Early Adopters Group and have signed letters of intent to this effect: Lincolnway Energy of Nevada, Iowa; and Corn, LP of Goldfield, Iowa. Significance? Lincolnway is the next door neighbor to the Dupont Cellulosic Ethanol plant in Nevada.

8. Fagen and Dupont deepened their deal.

Fact. DuPont Industrial Biosciences announced yesterday that it will contract with Fagen, Inc., to build one of the world’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol biorefineries in Nevada, Iowa. During 2011, DuPont Industrial Biosciences purchased land adjacent to the existing Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant, which will enable potential synergies in energy and logistical management.  Last month, the BP-Dupont owned Butamax announced a collaboration with Fagen for the introduction of commercial biobutanol production using Butamax technology.

9. Everything is going to Asia or Brazil. According to this rumor, concern over policy stability in North America and the EU is shifting developmental focus almost entirely to Asia and Brazil.

Fact, with caveats. There are plenty of projects with steel in the ground in the US – ZeaChem, POET-DSM, Abengoa, INEOS Bio, BP Biofuels, just to name a few. And Chemtex is building at commercial scale in Italy. But true to say that many eyes are on the Brazilian and Asian feedstocks as ripe opportunities for expansion in the 2010s. But a stable technology with a proven business model using non-food feedstocks – that will be a winner in any geography that has the cellulose.

10. Discussions on a new major bioenergy institute are underway amongst selected partners.

Fact. Well, it wouldn’t be a meeting in Florida without discussions of a Florida-based major new bioenergy center. Is the University of Florida looking for such a deal? Of course they are. So is every other institution in the state. Probably every institution in the country. So the rumors are true, but not particularly significant.

There has been some mash-up of rumors about Florida’s desire to expand off its biotechnology base (e.g. Scripps), and desires at BP to consider funding agricultural or applied biotechnology R&D – the mash-up is new, the underlying themes are pretty old.

However, true to say that there has been discussion bubbling for some time in Florida bioenergy circles about an institute that will focus, instead on simply basic or applied research, on the commercialization of biotechnology, and in particular, bioenergy.

As Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures told Genetic Engin“Both venture investors and pharma companies are naturally wary of the long timeframes and significant investments required to bring new biopharma products to market and therefore are looking for products with as much validation as possible,”

Here’s the stats for 2010 from the box six research institutions:

Invested in research Income %
University of California $5.2B $104.3M 2.01%
University of Texas $2.4B $53.8M 2.24%
Johns Hopkins University $2.5B $13.63M 0.55%
MIT $1.4B $78.0M 5.57%
University of Michigan $1.1B $39.82M 3.62%

So, you can see what a new institution would study. How to improve the timelines, and reduce the investments for commercialization, and better connect basic and applied research with commercialization activities.

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