[Updated and corrected: 11:04 am Pacific, 11/23/09] Seattle-based Bio Architecture Lab, the company using the emerging science of synthetic biology to make alternative fuels, has raised $8 million in its initial venture financing and secured a research collaboration with chemical giant DuPont to make biofuels from ocean seaweed.
[Correction: An earlier version said Energy Capital Management led the round; they actually just participated.] The Series A round investors include Energy Capital Management, the venture arm of Norway-based Statoil, the world’s largest producer of energy from offshore sources. The other investors are Chile-based Austral Capital and X/Seed Capital of Menlo Park, CA. We reported on the first $3.4 million piece of this transaction based on a regulatory filing back in July, but Bio Architecture Lab CEO Niki Parekh has said little publicly about what this is all about—until now.
The big idea at Bio Architecture Lab, which spun out of the University of Washington biochemistry lab of David Baker, is to engineer microbes that can live entirely on seaweed. The hope is that these microbes will efficiently convert that fast-growing, renewable source of biological material into fuel and chemicals, Parekh says. This idea is still very much in the R&D phase, and isn’t yet proven to deliver low-cost fuel in industrial-sized batches. But the support from Norway’s Statoil is the second important validation this year for Bio Architecture Lab, after DuPont (NYSE: DD) formed an alliance with the startup which recently nailed down $9 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program. The federal agency’s mission is to support innovative renewable energy ideas to help reduce U.S. dependence on petroleum, and the Bio Architecture Lab/DuPont collaboration seeks to play its part by producing butanol from seaweed.
Winning the support of Statoil and the federally supported research project with DuPont provides “really strong validation for us,” Parekh says.
Richard Erskine, a partner with Energy Capital Management said in a statement that his fund invested because: “Bio Architecture Lab is a leader in the development of technology to commercialize macroalgae as a next-generation feedstock for biofuels.” He added that Statoil has strategic reasons to keep an eye on this because it may want to use the technology itself.
Bio Architecture Lab is still playing its cards fairly close to the vest on how its technology works, but I was able to gather some sense of where this is supposed to lead as a business from Parekh.
One of the big problems with biofuel is finding a cheap, scalable, environmentally conscious way to get the raw biomass needed to pump out large volumes of fuel. Corn and soybeans aren’t ideal because they take away land that could be used to grow food crops. That has the potential to irritate critics who frame the idea as a “food-versus-fuel” trade-off.
“With seaweed, we can grow it at low cost, it’s sustainable, and it doesn’t compete with food crops for land,” Parekh says.
For those who didn’t major in microbiology, seaweed is actually just a slang term for a kind of algae, albeit a more complex, multicellular form of the organism sometimes called “macroalgae.” That’s different from what most people consider ordinary algae in freshwater ponds, which can consist of much smaller organisms—sometimes single-cell entities. Bio Architecture Lab has set its sights on seaweed or “macroalgae” largely because it believes it will be easier to convert into fuel at low cost, and at industrial scale, than microalgae, Parekh says.
Ocean seaweed also should have advantages because it doesn’t require fresh water, and shouldn’t need fertilizer, he says. The company is also seeking to stay on the good side of environmental activists by working with existing ocean farmers in the aquaculture industry, Parekh says.
Bio Architecture Lab has its sights set on some territory in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile which has high-density seaweed, and where the company has obtained permits to test its technology in a pilot project, Parekh says. It is in the process of getting some additional necessary permits, he says.
If this pilot project shows promise, the potential markets for renewable fuel and derivative chemicals will be numerous. Parekh didn’t want to go into much detail about what chemicals his company wants to make, but he noted that plastics and carpet fibers are made now with petroleum derivatives, and companies like DuPont are looking for other ways to make those kinds of products.
Bio Architecture Lab doesn’t see itself raising the huge sums of capital required to manufacture and distribute all this fuel on its own, so its strategy will be to focus on R&D and find bigger partners who need the technology, Parekh says.
The startup was founded in 2007 by UW’s Baker, chief scientist Yasuo Yoshikuni, and president Yuki Kashiyama. Bio Architecture Lab now has more than 10 employees at three different locations—Seattle; Santiago, Chile; and Berkeley, CA, where a research team has been set up to be near a critical mass of biofuel scientists drawn there by Jay Keasling‘s Joint BioEnergy Institute and synthetic biology lab at the University of California. The company has no formal relationship with the Keasling lab or institute, Parekh says.
Bio Architecture Lab is planning to use some of the new money to hire some scientists, and see how far it can take the technology in the pilot project. The combination of the two deals strengthens the company’s financial future, and may help it get in the door with more potential partners, Parekh says. “This is significant for us. It’s going to provide us with considerable runway,” he says.
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