Genomatica Brewing a Green Revolution for the Petrochemical Industry

10/29/08Follow @bvbigelow

It is hard to decide what to say first about San Diego’s Genomatica.

Is it more amazing that Genomatica has genetically engineered microbes to produce mass quantities of butanediol, a hydrocarbon widely used by the petrochemical industry to make plastics, solvents, pharmaceuticals, textiles and automotive components?

Or is it more impressive that the laboratory researchers who successfully inserted genes that converted ordinary E. coli bacteria into butanediol-making factories were following a blueprint generated by Genomatica’s proprietary software?

By combining its computational capabilities with its ability to engineer microrganisms Genomatica says it has developed a systematic and integrated method for taking the petroleum part out of the petrochemical business.

“What we’re trying to do is replace chemical industry feedstocks, but in a sustainable and renewable-technology fashion,” says Genomatica CEO Chris Gann.

The computational technology now known as SimPheny was the basis for launching Genomatica more than eight years ago, says Christophe Schilling, who developed the program with Bernhard Palsson, a professor of bioengineering at UC San Diego.

“I was writing my PhD thesis and a business plan at the same time,” says Schilling, who is now Genomatica’s 34-year-old president. He got his doctoral degree in bioengineering the same year he and Palsson founded the company.

Their initial funding of $3.5 million came from an angel group in Iceland, and Schilling says the company also benefitted from about $13 million in government and industry research grants.

Genomatica at first described its strategy in sweeping terms: “to advance the understanding of cells to facilitate drug discovery; accurate and efficient disease definition and processing of therapeutic targets; enhanced cellular engineering for bioprocessing and chemical production…”

The company hasn’t really changed course. But in 2006, Schilling says, “we committed ourselves to focus on the chemicals opportunity” by adding the experimental lab, and showing the technology can be used to engineer organisms to produce useful molecules in innovative ways. As the appeal of its sustainable “cleantech” approach became clear, Genomatica also decided to add “process engineering” as a key capability needed to improve yields.

With that, Genomatica put together a revised business plan in late 2006. By mid-2007, the company had financed that business plan with $20 million of new capital from Mohr Davidow Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Alloy Ventures. The company now has about 40 employees.

Genomatica’s core computational technology enables it to create a computerized model that simulates the myriad metabolic processes of a cell. It also enables Schilling’s team to determine the best series of metabolic processes—or pathway—for directing the cell to produce a particular compound.

Schilling compares their optimization approach to Mapquest, saying the same underlying computational technology is used to chart the most direct route between two points.

“What we’re able to do is take this modeling technology that we have here and ask the question: How would we go about engineering an organism to produce the molecules that we want?” Schilling says.

Genomatica demonstrated the ability to do just that when researchers under Mark Burk, Genomatica’s chief technology officer, succeeded earlier this year in manipulating a standard strain of E. coli to produce 1,4-butanediol, or BDO. The colorless, viscous liquid, used to make spandex clothing, skateboard wheels, car bumpers, dashboards and other resilient plastic materials, is normally toxic to E coli. But Genomatica’s engineered bugs were designed to churn the stuff out.

CEO Gann says the global petrochemical industry currently makes about 3 billion pounds of BDO a year for an estimated worldwide market of almost $3 trillion. Gann contends that Genomatica’s bioengineering approach to BDO production is more efficient, less expensive and more environmentally benign.

The established “brute force” method puts crude oil under tremendous heat and pressure in refinery “cracking” units. In contrast, Genomatica’s bioengineered organisms produce BDO by consuming sugar, oxygen, and other nutrients in fermentation tanks that operate at temperatures that are lower than a hot tub. “We don’t need subsidies, by the way,” Gann notes dryly. The approach will be comptetitive even if the price of crude oil drops to $50 a barrel, Gann says.

Genomatica plans to build and begin operating a pilot plant next year as part of its quest to improve process engineering and increase yields for industrial-scale manufacturing. But the CEO says he doesn’t want his firm to get into the BDO manufacturing business. Instead, Genomatica’s strategy is to license its methods for producing BDO to a variety of industries, including sugarcane growers, chemical manufacturers, and the companies that use BDO to make their own products.

Using its computational technology, Gann says Genomatica has identified a number of other compounds that can be made using genetically engineered microrganisms. But Gann says the company isn’t ready to talk about those compounds just yet.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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