Matrix Genetics Pursues the Algae Fuel Dream in the Lab, Not With Big Steel Tanks, Giant Ponds

5/12/11Follow @xconomy

Margaret McCormick has been dreaming of ways to make microorganisms do big things since her grad school days in biology at MIT. Years later, the scientist-turned-venture capitalist is now in a position to act on those dreams as CEO of a Seattle-based startup called Matrix Genetics.

The idea is about as big as startup visions get: engineering single-cell varieties of algae to become the workhorses that crank out commercial quantities of oil.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the power of single-cell organisms,” McCormick says. “There is so much unlocked potential for them to help us solve big problems.”

McCormick, one of the featured speakers at next week’s Xconomy event on alternative fuels, has led this quiet effort for the past three years inside Seattle-based Targeted Growth. While Targeted Growth grabbed headlines with hybrid camelina seeds that it turned into jet fuel for Boeing planes, McCormick and her team of a dozen scientists plowed away behind the scenes at something they believe has much bigger long-term potential.

The work has been focused on modifying one of the relatively simple genetic strains of algae, known as cyanobacteria, to produce more oils. Now that some critical early tests have been passed, McCormick says this effort is spinning off into a company of its own, which she believes can compete with a couple of the big names in the business of modifying algae strains for fuel. That includes Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics (which has a partnership with Exxon Mobil) and Cambridge, MA-based Joule Unlimited.

These are still the earliest of days for Matrix as a company. The company is made up of a team of 12 scientists, eight of them with Ph.Ds, housed inside the Institute for Systems Biology. Jim Roberts, a professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Fred Cross, a professor at Rockefeller University in New York, are a couple outside advisors who have played a key role, McCormick says. So far, Matrix has five patent applications filed, with more to come, and it is on the fundraising trail, with a goal of nailing down its first $10 million to $15 million, McCormick says. But even at this very early point in the company’s development, McCormick says she has already had some preliminary talks with oil companies that she hopes could lead to technology licensing deals over the next couple years.

Roberts, who’s close to the project, has some bullish things to say about its progress. “The future of Matrix is very bright,” he says in an e-mail. “Our progress surpasses other companies that are also interested in developing cyanobacteria as an oil-producing organism, such as Synthetic Genomics and Joule.”

Exciting as it may be in the lab, it’s still quite a long way from being applied in the business world. The global energy and transportation market is staggering in size, worth an estimated $7 trillion a year, and Matrix Genetics has no illusions that it will take over a big chunk of it by itself. The business model depends on making important discoveries for turning cyanobacteria into oil factories, and then licensing the technology to big oil companies that have the money and expertise to refine, distribute, market and sell the energy products. Matrix, at this point, is sticking to its basic science, and isn’t banking on raising a huge amount of capital that would be required to build up its own commercial infrastructure.

“We believe the return on investment for us will be in the genetics. Our expertise has always been in the genetics, and we don’t have the team that will be needed to build out the entire value chain,” McCormick says.

The history of how this came about is pretty interesting. Targeted Growth, a company that’s been around more than a decade, has a lot of experience in using knowledge of genetics to boost crop yields. As years went on, and oil prices went up, Targeted Growth got more interested in … Next Page »

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