Genomatica and The Art of Big Wave Surfing

February 12, 2013 |

Genomatica-mavericksThere’s a big, new wave of synthetic biology companies heading for scale — making chemicals and fuels from renewable resources using advanced fermentation

Now, there’s a new leader as Genomatica vaults to world-scale with a 5 million pound, five-week fermentation run.

If you ever followed the sport of big-wave surfing, you’ll recognize Mavericks — California’s perilous winter capital of The Big Ride, where dudes with less than ordinary regard for survival run the life-and-death risks — for the rush of mastering the monster 20-foot right-handers.

Not every one can surf, and not every surfer takes on the big waves, and fewer still take on Mavericks.

In synthetic biology these days, there are the Big Wave surfers too — companies like Amyris, Solazyme, Gevo, Genomatica, Verdezyne, Rivertop Renewables, Myriant, Segetis, BioAmber, Cobalt, Green Biologics, Butamax, LanzaTech, INEOS Bio, LS9, Elevance, and Sapphire Energy, among others.

Not for them the safe markets in high-value biopharma, where you can drain and scrub out the fermenters any time there is a misstep, because you are making handfuls of product for zillions of dollars.

These are the Big Waves. The transformative cost advantages in big markets via renewables.

You might have thought that the big waves were named Waimea and Pipeline or the tow-in sets at Peahi. But their real names are adipic acid, succinic acid, BDO, paraxylene, dielectric acids, isobutanol, ethanol, and drop-in fuels.

Watching this class of technologies come along — well, it has something in common with watching a group take on the 70-footers at Ghost Tree for the first time. The wave looks impossibly big, the surfer impossibly small. While the rewards are immense, one fall can be fatal.

You know they have the bravado, but do they really have the voodoo?

Top of the leaderboard

Though some have fallen, and some are yet to roll out their full-size rhino chasers for the really Big Ride, at scale — we have a new leader on the board, in Genomatica.

This week, the company confirmed what had been rumored for some time amongst the fermeterati — their massive project, producing biobased BDO (1.4, butanediol) in the big 600,000 liter fermenters at a DuPont Tate & Lyle plant in Tennessee, had come off without a hitch.

Think of it. 5 million pounds in a five-week run of continuous fermentations, probably 50 in all. Street value, not far shy of $5 million — all of it quickly sold to customers. Arguably more product than all the others in this class of technologies coming through produced all year, combined.

In the world of BDO, and of renewable chemicals as a whole — where output is measured in pounds and tonnes instead of gallons and barrels — 1 million pounds a week is world-class scale. More than 2,000 metric tonnes, made from conventional dextrose sugars — instead of from conventional fossil petroleum as BDO usually is.

The five year run from lab to scale

This marks the first time that BDO– with an existing worldwide market of billions of pounds per year – has been produced biologically on this scale and at this rate. This campaign was completed less than five years from when Genomatica first demonstrated the ability for a microorganism to produce BDO in 2008. In their case, it’s modified e.coli fermentation.

Before Mavericks was made famous in the 1990s by Surfer Magazine, turns out that one lonely surfer (Jeff Clark) had been conquering it for years. In the case of Genomatica, they smartly partnered with DuPont Tate & Lyle, which has has been running its leading-edge biochemical plant in Tennessee since 2006, producing 1,3-propanediol (PDO) at commercial volumes. No rookie crew here.

PDO (1,3 propanediol), is one of the only examples of an industrial intermediate, or basic chemical, that has been successful in making the cost advantaged transition from the petro based PDO, to the direct chemical equivalent, bio-based PDO. DuPont, Tate & Lyle and Genencor collaborated to develop and commercially scale this process with sales over $200 million. This accomplishment took 7 years to commercialization and another 3 years to achieve market penetration.

Genomatica produced commercial Bio-BDO less than two years after Genomatica and Tate & Lyle signed a joint development agreement for the demonstration-scale production of Genomatica’s Bio-BDO (1,4-butanediol) — at 13,000 liter scale at the Tate & Lyle plant in Decatur, Illinois.

The BDO market

BDO, by the way, is not only a high-value product — selling in the $2000-$2300 range per tonne last year on the spot market — it’s also a big one, with $4 billion in global sales last year.

Commercially viable at this scale. Yes, says Genomatica – at this scale it has a commercially competitive cost structure. And, for Genomatica, this is the year.

“It’s given a lot of comfort to licensees,” Genomatica CEO Christophe Schilling told the Digest, “to have validation done at commercial scale.”

More announcements to come regarding customer deals? Schilling pauses. “Suffice it to say at this stage, more will follow — and this is the year of commercialization, for the BDO part of our story. All the scale-up stuff, the pilot, the lab, the demonstration — all that is behind us now and we are focused on the commercial scale facility.”

Bottom line — Genomatica was at 13,000 liter scale — then went for the Big Wave, and came down the face with amazing speed and not a little grace. Go to the front of the class of the mavericks, at Mavericks.

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