Scouting San Diego, Battelle Chemist Seeks Catalyzing Role as Industrial Biotech Arises Here

11/2/11Follow @bvbigelow

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offering patent or IP-based solutions to capture higher value for our R&D.”

Aside from the Navy and Marine Corps, which make up most of Battelle’s contract work in San Diego, Vijayendran says Battelle also has many life sciences clients here that are working in diagnostics, drug delivery, or early stage drug discovery.

Vijayendran arrival bears particular significance for San Diego’s nascent cleantech community. With his expertise in materials science and recent experience overseeing Battelle’s renewable energy program in Malaysia, Vijayendran is particularly interested in producing high-value specialty chemicals from bio-renewable raw materials, such as soy-based plasticizers. He says bio-based polyols alone represent a $12 billion global market.

In scouting for local business opportunities, Vijayendran says he’s met with all of the San Diego-based companies working to develop algae-based biofuels and biotech-based renewable chemicals—from companies like General Atomics and Sapphire Energy, which are developing algae-based biofuels, to Malama Composites, a startup making soy-based foam and composite materials.

Advanced materials go into “almost everything,” Vijayendran explains, “whether you want to make a better chemical, better solar panel, or a better solar battery. There are many companies here that kind of look at that as an engine that drives subsequent innovation. We thought this could be a hook to get a bigger presence here.”

So far, that hasn’t resulted in an influx of new Battelle employees. Vijayendran says the company has no plans to expand its operations or to build a laboratory in San Diego.

“The goal may not necessarily be to get more people to San Diego,” which now has about 40 employees, says Jim Bird, who manages Battelle’s regional office here after retiring as a Navy captain in 2007. “Part of the business model is to get more work and to allow small companies to access Battelle research capabilities back in Columbus.”

Looking ahead, Vijayendran says cleantech startups face a significant challenge in moving their technology from the laboratory to industrial-scale production. In the renewable bio-chemical industry, building a production plant typically requires a dollar for each pound of production—so a plant that produces 200 million pounds of bio-based material annually would cost about $200 million to build.

As a result, Vijayendran says the Silicon Valley VCs who jumped into cleantech deals a few years ago have been discovering that industrial biotechnology is far more capital-intensive than they expected. “We believe that for this area to grow, and to have renewable resource-based products and chemicals, that it’s going to be important to work with established players, like a DuPont, DSM, or BASF, because they know this business,” he says.

“The model we’ve been using is to take on early stage technology, filing for patents, and getting companies to work with us to further develop and commercialize [their advances],” Vijayendran says. As Battelle helps startups validate their technologies and create value in the market, he anticipates they will need to quickly find industrial partners—and that’s something Battelle can help with as well.

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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