Sapphire Energy, Backed by Bill Gates, Tries to Tone Down the Hype as it Makes Gasoline From Algae

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a handful of venture capital leaders began looking for the right technology. Typically, the innovator who develops a new technology looks for the right venture capital firms to provide funding for the idea.

Pyle says his discussions began with Kristina Burow, a chemist-turned-partner at Arch Venture Partners, biotech CEO Nathaniel David and scientist Mike Mendez. “We started analyzing different kinds of biofuel deals and technologies and asking ourselves what’s great about this and what’s not,” Pyle said.

After determining that their best prospect was to become a producer of gasoline and diesel fuels, Pyle says they set out to identify the best green technologies for making it. They found what they were looking for in the research of Stephen Mayfield, an algae biologist at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, and Steven Briggs, a professor of cell and developmental biology at UC San Diego.

The founders and their scientific collaborators officially launched Sapphire in May 2007, and moved the headquarters from San Francisco to San Diego earlier this year.

In September, Sapphire generated a lot of buzz when it announced it raised $100 million in a second round of venture funding from ARCH Venture Partners, Venrock, the Wellcome Trust and Cascade Investment, a venture firm owned by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. Pyle declined to say how much Sapphire has raised altogether.

With so much recent attention, it was perhaps inevitable that Pyle and other Sapphire leaders would step forward to publicly discuss their startup for the first time to the San Diego community.

The SDBN networking event drew scores of biotech workers Tuesday night, even though Pyle made no presentation. Hundreds of others attended presentations by two Sapphire scientists at a breakfast meeting hosted early Wednesday by Biocom, the San Diego industry group.

“Technologically speaking, we think of this as an immense challenge on the order of the Apollo (space) program or the Manhattan project,” Alex Aravanis, Sapphire’s senior director of BioEngineering told the Biocom audience.

Using genetic engineering and other techniques, Aravanis said a massively industrialized approach would be needed to grow algae in sufficient quantities to produce enough green crude to accommodate the 20 million barrels of crude oil consumed by the United States every day. Sapphire’s concept calls for creating enormous algae “farms” throughout the desert lands of the southwestern United States.

“This particular technology could be deployed at a very large scale, a scale that could make the U.S not only energy independent—but a net exporter of fuels,” Aravanis said.

He added that the algae developed by Sapphire can thrive in brackish saltwater, making it possible, perhaps, to tap sources of otherwise unusable water—such as the Salton Sea—to support such algae fields in the deserts east of San Diego.

It could take years to develop the necessary industrial processes, but Pyle says he’s excited and encouraged by everything that has happened and the interest generated so far.

“We’ve had conversations with all six of the largest oil companies in the world” he says.

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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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