LS9, Creator of Synthetic Microbes to Make Biofuel, Edges Toward Moment of Truth
Every hot startup has to put up or shut up at some point. This is when it’s time to stop talking about the gee-whiz founding idea and scientific progress. It’s the point when a company needs to prove it can operate a disciplined, sustainable business. The moment is fast approaching for LS9.
LS9, the South San Francisco-based maker of renewable biofuels, has been hot stuff in the cleantech world for a few years. The company counts a trio of star scientific founders in UC Berkeley’s Jay Keasling, Chris Somerville of the Energy Biosciences Institute, and Harvard University’s George Church. It has deep-pocketed venture capitalists on both coasts in Cambridge, MA-based Flagship Ventures and Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures and Lightspeed Ventures, who have pumped in $45 million since the company was founded in 2005.
The buzz came from being part of the nascent field of synthetic biology. As Craig Venter has recently demonstrated, scientists are getting better at manipulating the fundamental unit of life, the cell. In the case of LS9, the company has sought to swap in and out a few enzymes inside bacteria so that instead of converting sugars into fatty acids, they could become super-efficient engines for converting sugars into fuels like diesel. Change out an enzyme here or there, and LS9 can also make higher-priced industrial chemicals like the ones that go into soap or toothpaste. The key would be to do this through an industrial fermentation process, and do the work at large scale, at low cost, using existing infrastructure, and in a controlled, reproducible manner.
The first couple of years for LS9, according to R&D chief Stephen del Cardayre, were about proving that the company could in fact create a one-step process in which sugar goes into a fermenter and fuels, rather than fats, come out. If the company could do this in a straight one-step process, without creating chemical intermediaries that need to undergo an expensive hydrogenation refinement process, then they’d have an edge over competitors on cost. The next couple of years were about showing the LS9 process could work in a pilot scale, in 1,000-liter batches. The company checked that box. It even showed the fuel in this tiny quantity could pass ASTM certification, which basically says it meets performance standards and won’t wreck engines.
But this year, LS9 will find out if it’s really ready to go from the lab to the factory. The company bought a mothballed fermentation plant in Okeechobee, Florida—a rural part of the Sunshine State—for a paltry $2 million. The plan is to retrofit this old plant so that it can … Next Page »