What’s the Buzz? Heard on the floor at the BIO World Congress

April 20, 2016 |

BD-TS-WCIB2016-smOverall, the BIO mood differed by BIO sector.

For foods and proteins, it feels like boom times as companies are raising substantial amounts of money and we see companies like Calysta moving ahead fast with its protein product, FeedKind — while TerraVia (the former Solazyme) has brought in a whole group of name-brand food investors that are going forward with a food-focused strategy based on the likes of AlgaVia whole flour.

Thrive

For biomaterials, it’s good times with companies like Coca-Cola expanding with the Plant Bottle, and new applications coming out almost every week from the likes of Bolt Threads.

Jive

Renewable chemicals — those making drop-ins were less cheery than those with novel applications or performance benefits. Case in point — Avantium’s recent cap raise based on its novel FDCA and PEF prospects.

Still alive?

Fuels were hardly in evidence this year.

Gevo’s Pat Gruber noted “we’re just about the last one completely focused on fuels. But we’re still here,” he noted with a smile. The good news for Gevo? They’re done with the 6-year journey to get Gevo’s alcohol-to-jet fuel (ATJ) certified by ASTM. That clears the way for the final testing flights with airlines and aircraft. “We think we have the lowest cost renewable jet fuel you can buy right now,” he said. But he said that, despite the strong interest in jet fuel, he sees even stronger interest in the marina segment where boat owners want a high-octane fuel but are wary of ethanol. A big frustration? “Butanol has a reputation for being low octane, which is really more n-butanol. Isobutanol is high-octane.”

Speaking of n-butanol, Green Biologics is on the prowl for plant #2 — with plans advancing at a fast pace for the conversion of their first commercial project in Minnesota, the question becomes, “who will be second?” Not only did we spy Sean Sutcliffe working the floor at BIO, former Green Biologics president Joel Stone, now an adviser to the company, was seen working the ropes, shaking hands and kissing babies.

Plant Bottle

Although we didn’t hear much from Gevo, or Avantium, in terms of specifics for their Coca-Cola “plant bottle” deals, the buzz was all over BIO that Avantium was ready to announce a big step forward in their story, and news of a €20 million capital raise did not disappoint. With the first commercial project focused — at a mysterious time and cost — on Antwerp, it makes sense that they were able to persuade PMV and its quasi-sovereign investment fund, TINA, focused on technology leadership for Flanders, into taking an interest in Avantium.

Coca-Cola was working the floor hard at BIO, but more on building awareness that their Plant Bottle platform and community is an open one, and that other brands should take a close look at the opportunities for sustainable branding as Ford and Sea World have done. Coca-Cola now has 13 manufacturing points for the 30% Plant Bottle, has made investments with Virent, Avantium and Gevo on the 100% Plant Bottle. But Coca-Cola’s Michael Knudsen reminded The Digest that we also would be seeing activity for “Plant Bottle 1.1” — which is to say making the sources for the 30% “Plant Bottle #1” even more renewable. That could be good news for companies like Liquid Light, who have a partnership with Coca-Cola to develop MEG from CO2.

Space: The Final Bio-Frontier

Space was much in evidence in the first plenary session on Monday, when NASA astronaut Cady Coleman made a presentation and joined a panel of biologists and engineers to look at biotechnology’s role in helping the exploration and colonization of space. A euphemism-replete discussion of waste recycling was paired up with discussions of food production. Coleman said “we’re not going to Mars right now because we are clearly not ready,” citing the work being done right now to use the experiences of long-space tours at the International Space Station to generate the know-how to support three-year missions — not only consumables, she noted, but robust equipment that would not breakdown with no repair shop in sight.

Carver Award

Also on the plenary stage on Monday was Craig Venter, picking up the Carver Award for Lifetime Achievement and looking slightly embarrassed in being singled out for attention in what he insisted was a set of achievements made by a broad group working for a very long time. A highlight of his remarks? Taking up the space theme of the opening session of BIO, he speculated that the day might come when travel to the distant stars comes in the form of digital instructions for an organism, sent at the speed of light. He said that it had been demonstrated that the DNA of our genomes could be translated into the 0s and 1s of the digital world, and back again — and that transmission of instructions to build a simple virus had been successfully transported over meaningful distances.

Chems and more

At BIO, Europeans were much in evidence this year — particularly on the renewable chemicals side. A number of them will be partaking in a plenary on Tuesday morning on developing renewable chemicals in the face of low oil prices. The Digest had an entertaining conversation with Reverdia CEO Marcel Lubben on the progress being made with succinic acid — not only as a drop-in replacement where succinic is already used, but increasingly as a biobased platform chemical — a first step on a journey towards other drop-ins, but also other novel chemicals that have unique properties. Lubben pointed to Avantium’s success in building a market for PEF as an alternative to PET for clear plastic bottles as an example of what biobased chemistry could achieve. Meanwhile, Leaf – LeSaffre Advancaed Fermentations — had a big contingent on the floor and appeared to be conducting a huge percentage of what BIO said were 1400 meetings already booked through its one-to-one partnering system.

Upbeat smiles? Intrexon SVP Bob Walsh looked purty darn happy, but he’s got so many molecules in Intrexon’s library it’s not yet perfectly clear which one has the most promise — could be butanol. Calysta CEO Alan Shaw was delighted with the studies confirming his company’s proteins’ appeal for the fish meal market.  POET was showing off a visionary corporate video as the Monday plenary got underway, and Iowa Economic Development was .

Novozymes? They’re on the hunt for new applications for their protein-optimizing technology. It’s alwasys been “enzymes, enzymes and more enzymes” in Novo-world, but they know there’s a lot more that their technology can do, and partnering discussions may take a broader view when it comes to new marlet segments, outside of categories like renewable fuels and home products where they have been so visibly successful.

Perhaps the biggest buzz at BIO? Comet’s deal with BioAmber for cellulosic sugars. And Avantium and BASF. Add to that on the downbeat side, the “what’s next with oil prices?” discussion after OPEC oil production talks at Doha failed. What’s next for Brazil, as President Roussef faces impeachment was a topic for some. Mostly though, people were looking for investors and partners — which is the normal work of the World Congress, though we saw financial investors less in evidence and more emphasis has been on strategics.

The buzz on Clariant?  What about Brazil opportunities? They’ve completed comprehensive tests on over 40 containers of sugarcane bagasse and tops & leaves from Brazil at its pilot and pre-commercial facilities in Straubing, Germany to receive in-depth technical and economic validation of the sunliquid technology.  The overall yield of performance runs achieved up to 300 Liters per ton of feedstock. With the tests Clariant confirmed once more that the total cost per liter of cellulosic ethanol including feedstock, conversion and depreciation using the sunliquid technology can achieve price competitiveness with sugarcane ethanol pricing in Brazil.

Calysta’s Alan Shaw continues on his offensive against what he regards as the impossibly high costs of sugars, especially cellulosic sugars. “Problem is people are still in complete denial,” he tells The Digest. On the plenary stage, Shaw joined Amyris CEO John Melo, BNDES’ Felipe Pereira, REG’s Eric Bowen, Mitsui’s Minoru Watari and Reverdia’s Marcel Lubben for a discussion of how to “thrive, jive or stay alive” during these low oil price times. For Calysta, working off low-cost methane that’s headed lower, the focus is less on controlling feedstock costs and more about pioneering acceptance of single-cell protein as fish feed. Melo emphasized developing products that have high performance and novel attributes. REG’s Bowen said that the company’s entry into renewable chemicals would offer new high-value marlets, noting that “when I got into this business ten years ago, there was a natural spread between biodiesel and feedstock and you could make money, unsubsidized. Today, you need the carbon price.” Lubben emphasized finding new applications based on succinic acid — traditional chemistry based atop the renewable platform of sugars-to-succinic. In short, it seems like “novel is in” for renewable chemicals, while “drop-ins rule” continues for fuels.

The global sustainability flag was carried by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials’ Barbara Bramble, although we sometimes wonder how so many players and producers feel they can skip the sustainability certification process.

Meanwhile, the Sustainable Energy for All movement’s Gerry Ostheimer was back from what he termed an “eye-opening tour” of The Philippines. “It’s amazing,” he said. “They get it.” The country’s combination of policy supports, feedstock and industrial developers, he said, make it unique well-suited for bioenergy deployment. Sugarcane, or bagasse, we wondered? Coconut meal, he said. It’s just like corn, in some respects  there are starches, and a feed product, and oils. And the country’s resources are abundant, he added.

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