Top 10 Transformations – Pivotal Pivots for survival in the bioeconomy

July 15, 2018 |

We frequently hear that the only constant is change and in today’s bioeconomy world, we see this lived out all the time. Companies come and go but some evolve, transform, and change. Today we focus on some of these pivotal pivots and the transformations with these leaders who live and breathe change to survive.

Some of these started with biofuels then went into chemicals, nutrition or protein and some are going back to their beginnings. What they all have in common, however, is they are transforming…as markets change, as the economy changes, as technologies change, they recognize that the only way to keep up with change is to change yourself.

#1 Velocys

Velocys pivoted in 2017 from “FT tech co” to “renewable fuels company.” As reported in the Digest in June 2017, UK-based Velocys CEO David Pummell said that “Our new strategy is for Velocys to be at the heart of building plants that convert woody biomass to high specification renewable diesel and jet fuel for the US market, our primary focus market. Our route to the production of renewable fuels from woody biomass uses cost effective, abundant and entirely sustainable feedstock, allowing our solution to be highly scalable to meet the increased demand for renewable fuels. All of this contributes to our differentiated value proposition to the market”.

Pummel said, “The Company is transforming – moving away from being ‘a FT technology company’ to being Velocys, ‘the renewable fuels company’. The time is now right for Velocys to take forward a bold growth strategy and I am confident that we are the right company, with the right technology, at the right time to enter this attractive market and deliver sustainable growth.”

Velocys has evolved and adapted well, with the latest news in May about their work with Red Rock Biofules, as reported in the Digest, “Velocys picks up velocity while rockin’ with red rock.” Also check out The Digest’s 2018 Multi-Slide Guide to Velocys’ renewable drop-in fuels.

#2 Amyris

The Digest just covered Amyris last week, “Same As It Never Was,” and their Novvi (Amyris’ JV with Cosan) and Chevron deal to bring to market novel renewable base oil technologies. Just a few years ago, Amyris was working on renewable fuels and now moving into base oils shows they know how to adapt to changing markets. With their Chevron partnership, Amyris’s pivot into health and beauty sectors and facial formulations is allowing them to grow and sustain itself in areas we never expected. Check out The Digest’s 2018 Multi-Slide Guide to Amyris and all their promise and progress on multiple fronts here.

#3 Virent

Virent started with fuels – biojet fuels, biogasoline, and biodiesel – then expanded to biofuels and biochemicals, then for a bit focused on biochemicals only, then both again with slightly more emphasis now on biofuels again thanks to rising oil prices. Like Transformer Optimus Prime, it knows when to transform in order to survive. Shell, an investor in Virent for many years, sees the strength in this and is still investing in Virent and their future. Even their new CEO, Stacey Orlandi, is a former Shell New Energies’ guru.

Virent is in the business of replacing crude oil by applying clever chemistry to create the fuels and chemicals the world demands using a wide range of naturally-occurring, renewable resources. Virent’s patented technology features catalytic chemistry to convert plant-based sugars into a full range of products identical to those made from petroleum, including gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and chemicals for plastics and fibers. Check out The Digest’s Multi-Slide Guide to Virent here.

#4 Aemetis

Aemetis started in 2006 as a first generation ethanol and biofuels producer that then looked at biomass sorghum for feedstock, and now calls itself an advanced renewable fuels and biochemicals company that focuses on the conversion of first-generation ethanol and biodiesel plants into advanced biorefineries.

Aemetis owns and operates 110 million gallons per year of ethanol and biodiesel facilities in the US and India and is upgrading the plants using patented technology to produce lower carbon, higher value advanced biofuels and chemicals using lower cost, non-food energy sources and feedstocks. Of special interest is the Aemetis cellulosic refinery using agricultural waste to generate cellulosic ethanol in a technology partnership with LanzaTech among others. Check out The Digest’s Multi-Slide Guide to Aemetis here.


POET pivoted from first generation to advanced biofuels via POET DSM. Just this April, the Digest reported that POET overtook ADM as the largest ethanol producer with about 2 billion gallons expected by 2019 and 1.9 billion gallons set for 2018. What’s even more interesting is POET-DSM’s cellulosic biofuels production breakthrough that eliminated a big bottleneck in pretreatment, as reported in The Digest in November 2017. Check out the Digest’s Multi-Slide Guide to the “ABLC Wolfpack” presentation this April which included details about POET’DSM’s first commercial project in Iowa.

#6 Codexis

Back in 2013, Codexis announced its departure from cellulosic enzymes and biofuels and critics wondered if they were headed for extinction like others were at that time. But that was not in Codexis’s cards because they were a Transformer. They changed course and left biofuels behind for a more profitable pharma/biocatalysis business. Now they are a leading protein engineering company that applies its technology to the development of biocatalysts for the commercial manufacture of pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals. Check out The Digest’s 2018 Multi-Slide Guide to Codexis here to see their progress and vision of the protein future.

#7 Heliae

Founded in 2008 as a biofuels company, Heliae switched to its current focus on nutraceutical ingredients and specialty products for agriculture and aquaculture in 2012. In what is yet another story of a biofuels company transforming into a high value market, Heliae is now feeding fish with algae ingredients and has several agricultural and nutraceutical products on the market. They still face challenges of course, like algal biomass production costs, but hey, who ever said change was easy? They found a way to survive and thrive during a weakened biofuels market and some say that is what matters.

#8 Green Plains

Nebraska-based Green Plains Inc. is North America’s third largest producer of ethanol. It has grown rapidly, primarily through acquisitions, and today has operating segments throughout the ethanol value chain. While it started in 2004 as an ethanol and biofuel company, it has expanded from just ethanol production to various parts along the value chain as a way to mitigate the effects of changes in commodity prices. A smart move if you ask us.

The increasing importance of protein was driven home to us by Green Plains when they tipped in their most recent corporate presentation that they plan to “divest select assets that are undervalued by the market or do not fit our protein and export strategy.” As reported in The Digest in July, for Green Plains that makes quite a bit of sense because the company, best known as an ethanol producer, has become the fourth largest cattle feeder in the U.S., and its food & ingredients segment generated more than 60 percent of the company’s EBITDA in Q1 2018. Yes, it’s a sign of the times. And their joint venture called BioProcess Algae to commercialize algae production technology is yet another example of a pivot made by Green Plains into things beyond biofuels like animal feed, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and more.

#9 ENI

This one may be unexpected because it didn’t start with biofuels. It started with fossil fuels, oil, petroleum. While it still is an oil and gas company in Italy, Eni has expanded into renewables with it’s Venice biorefinery. The former oil refinery was renovated by UOP to produce renewable diesel and ENI is even now collecting used cooking oil from employees’ homes to help with the project and vision of becoming more sustainable. In fact, ENI is supplying the city of Venice ad their waterbuses with its B15 Eni Diesel+ which is in part produced from UCO collected in the city.

#10 REG

REG got its start in biomass-based diesel about 20 years ago and has since transformed into an advanced biofuels producer and renewable chemicals company focusing on biochemicals, oils and sugars. They developed a specialty fatty acid as their first commercial product in 2016, acquired a leading renewable chemical technology developer, and more. As stated on their website, they are always ready for changing, saying “We will continue to broaden our footprint through a global focus, continuous innovation and an expanding product portfolio.”

Bottom Line

With all this talk of changes and transformations, the one consistent message is that these companies were ready for pivots when they needed to in order to survive or grow. Whether it’s survival or ambition for more growth and profitability, transformations are sometimes necessary and can end up being the best decision ever made. Just ask these Top 10 Transformers.

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