Sapphire Energy CEO Jason Pyle’s Parting Thoughts on Big Biofuel

4/23/12Follow @bvbigelow

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himself as a technology developer and entrepreneur who is focused primarily on transferring breakthroughs in academic research to industry. He says he specializes in such things that are critical to companies in the startup phase—research management, technical project planning, organizational development, intellectual property development, and R&D timeline and resource planning. Before starting Sapphire in 2007, Pyle was a co-founder and chief technical officer at Epoc, a medial technology company in Houston, TX.

Recruiting key people like Warner and others to the company’s board is one of the accomplishments that Pyle says he’s proud of. The new recruits are “exactly the kind of people the company needs,” he says.

Before leaving, Pyle says he wanted to make sure the company was “essentially on track for strategic purposes” and to complete the final tranche of a $144 million Series C round of investment funding, which Sapphire disclosed earlier this month. Pyle says the total for all three rounds of Sapphire’s financing is close to $350 million, which he says has translated into building “a billion dollars worth of value in the company.”

Sapphire’s investors include Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, Arch Venture Partners, Venrock, Arrowpoint Partners, Monsanto, and the Wellcome Trust. The company also has established several partnerships, including collaborations with Monsanto and Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology.

The ultimate goal, Pyle says, “is to produce green crude at volumes that are consistent with reducing the nation’s need for imported oil. That’s an enormous goal that really is a 10-year endeavor.”

Pyle says the fundamental importance of attaining this goal is something that he has emphasized at the highest levels of the federal government. “Energy, in general, is a national interest,” Pyle says. “So things that improve the energy mix are unquestionably a national interest,” especially in terms of reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil. Over the past two years, Pyle says he worked to deliver that message at the highest levels in Congress, federal agencies, and at the Pentagon.

“We’re not really talking about commercial ideology of what should be subsidized or what shouldn’t, or why there should be programs, but making sure that everyone—Republicans and Democrats understand that energy is a national interest and that new forms of energy [like biofuels] are absolutely critical for a country that is dependent on foreign oil. It is the responsibility of our government to support, nurture, and create new forms of energy that we can use,” Pyle says.

As Sapphire’s CEO, Pyle says his focus was on policy over regulatory matters.

“Being from biotech, we’re accustomed to interacting with some form or fashion of government,” Pyle says. “I would say in your average biotech, the regulatory burden takes up significantly more time of the senior executives than the policy initiatives at Sapphire.

“This has not been an unusually contentious issue,” Pyle adds. “It’s just really complicated.”

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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  • anonymous

    Heard they have 55 Phd’s blowing through approximately $5 million per month. Where is the promised green crude for fuel? Have been hearing the same song for years. Also, heard that all DOE grants and loan guarantees are being investigated by the IG’s office. Could be a big problem.

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  • Krassen

    Sapphire has been circulating this image for years now, and we still do not know what it represents. Is there really chlorophyll in their “green crude” to account for the green color? If that is the case, then the company’s claims of making something very similar to crude oil in composition are bogus. Chlorophyll with its cyclyc heteroatoms, is not what is normally found in crude.

    I remember seeing the picture in an article in Nature Biotechnology years ago and asking the author (Emily Waltz) about it. She responded that she got the image from the company and was likely an artist’ rendition. However, $350 mln later shouldn’t we have a better idea of what exactly is “green crude”, what are its production yields, what are the costs, etc. Presenting emotive images, instead of concrete numbers, strikes as a dishonest and manipulative way to influence the public opinion, given how much Sapphire depends on taxpayer money.

    [Also, the company recently announced a deal for CO2 supply for their algae farms, I assume to boost yields. However, how is that gas captured? The economic penalty on capturing and compressing CO2 from flue gases is an issue that has not been solved. Algae fuel is expensive as it is: high capital requirements, dewatareng penalty, etc. If they are going to have to pay for the CO2, that makes it even harder to contemplate as an economic proposition.]

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