Bill Gates’ Favorite Biofuel Company on the Docket for Thursday’s Alternative Fuels Event

5/16/11Follow @xconomy

There might be 100 good energy ideas in the U.S. today, as Bill Gates said last week at a fundraiser for Climate Solutions, but one of the really big ones he’s backing is San Diego-based Sapphire Energy. This company, which has raised more than $300 million to execute on its vision of making algae a practical source of renewable fuel, is either going to make a big difference, or a big flop, in the energy business.

Sapphire doesn’t make a lot of appearances to talk about its work in Seattle, which is partly why I’m looking forward to our next Xconomy event “Separating Hype from Reality in Alternative Fuels” on Thursday. This conference will feature two of Sapphire’s co-founders, Kristina Burow and Ned David. I’ll be moderating a keynote chat between those two, and Margaret McCormick, the founding CEO of Seattle-based Matrix Genetics.

The people on this panel are so dynamic that I could probably sleepwalk through the moderating part and it would still be dazzling. Burow, a partner at Arch in San Francisco in her 30s, has built a portfolio of chemistry-based companies that represent really big ideas, which could end up making her work on Sapphire look small. One of her other early investments is in San Francisco-based Siluria Technologies, which is developing a low-emissions process for converting natural gas into fuel and chemicals that go into plastics.

David is another big-thinking biochemist, who has co-founded five companies that have raised a combined $700 million. His latest venture, San Francisco-based Kilimanjaro Energy, is seeking to capture carbon dioxide from the air to help pop loose trillions of dollars worth of oil trapped underground for starters. If that goes well, Kilimanjaro will capture carbon to help feed all that algae that Sapphire Energy wants to harness for oilmaking. He’s the first to admit this is highly technical and easier said than done, but the payoff if it works will be tremendous, both for business, and the environment.

McCormick, a more familiar face in these parts from her time with Seattle’s Integra Ventures, will be able to talk a bit about what she’s been doing inside Seattle-based Targeted Growth the past few years, which is leading to the spinout of Matrix Genetics. One of her scientific advisors, Jim Roberts of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, boldly stated last week that Matrix’s work in genetically modifying single-cell algae for oil production can stack up well against the better-funded, better-known efforts at San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics and Cambridge, MA-based Joule Unlimited. I guess we’ll see about that.

Beyond that trio, the program for this event is loaded with other features to highlight a broad cross-section of what’s going on in alternative fuels here in the Northwest. Here’s the agenda I’ve mapped out for Thursday’s gathering, which will get going at 6 pm at the Institute for Systems Biology.

Time Description Speakers
5:15 pm Registration & Networking
6 pm Welcoming remarks

Nitin Baliga, Institute for Systems Biology

6:05 pm Introductory remarks Tom Ranken, Washington Clean Tech Alliance
6:10 pm Feature panel Luke Timmerman, Xconomy (moderator)
Kristina Burow, Arch Venture Partners
Ned David, Kilimanjaro Energy
Margaret McCormick, Matrix Genetics
7 pm Aviation fuels initiative John Gardner, Bainbridge Graduate Institute
7:10 pm Company bursts Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Energy
Jan Allen, Harvest Power
Jeff Surma, S4 Energy Solutions
Michael Ramage, Asemblon
Hoby Douglass, General Biodiesel
7:30 pm Networking/Tours of ISB
8:30 pm End

Tickets are still available, including discounted seats for students, and startups. I’m psyched up to ask the hard questions about the renewable fuels business, and see what all these entrepreneurs have to say. See you there at the Institute for Systems Biology on Thursday night.

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