Matrix Genetics Emerges from Algae Biofuel Wilderness With a Partner

5/16/13Follow @xconomy

Matrix Genetics is one of those startups that never really got off the ground in its early days, but never died, either. While the Seattle-based company lived on fumes at various points over the past four years, it saw other contenders in the algae biofuel business rise, and fall.

Now Matrix has stayed in the game long enough to get its first real shot. Over the next several years, the company will see if it can succeed where nobody else has, in turning fast-dividing algae into oil-producing workhorses.

Matrix has closed on a Series A venture financing round that has enabled it to build a team of about 20 scientists, Xconomy has learned. This financing amount isn’t being disclosed, and no record of it has been filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But the deal includes Spokane, WA-based Avista Development, wealthy individuals, and an unnamed “major international energy company” that has also formed a strategic partnership with Matrix, according to CEO Margaret McCormick. The collaborator’s interest is big enough that it has enticed Jim Roberts, a former Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and director of basic sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, to dive in full-time as chief scientific officer of Matrix.

The company has already extended 18 job offers to scientific staff, and the first 17 accepted while one last candidate is still considering, Roberts says. The next step for Matrix will be to get labs in the South Lake Union area up and running by a target date of July 1, he says. About half of the scientific staff has been recruited from outside Seattle to join the company, Roberts says.

Jim Roberts

“The first reason I’m doing this is we’re talking about absolutely fascinating biology. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t really enjoy it,” Roberts says. “The second reason is that startup biotech companies do much, much better when the founder and the principal scientist is there 100 percent of the time. It usually doesn’t work when the principal scientist views it as a hobby. These are really deep biological problems that need to be solved to make this work, and we think we know how to do it.”

Matrix, which I first wrote about here in May 2011, started out about five years ago as a skunkworks project inside Seattle-based Targeted Growth, which was primarily focused at the time on making biofuels from camelina seeds. The idea was that while camelina might make sense as a first-generation source of renewable biofuels, the ultimate prize would be in using algae to produce the oil, because it’s so much more efficient.

Matrix had as many as a dozen people working on its ideas for engineering strains of single-cell algae, known as cyanobacteria, to make them much better at producing oil than the kinds of strains found in nature. It sought to raise $10 million to $15 million to pursue this idea, but when the checks didn’t arrive, it slimmed down to just two people at one point, McCormick says. Things picked back up again last August, when Avista Development got interested enough to provide a small amount of debt financing to restart the work, and there has been enough progress since then for Avista to convert its debt into an equity stake as part of this Series A deal, McCormick says.

While Matrix spent its time in the wilderness, many earlier generation biofuel companies have either … Next Page »

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  • Hal W.

    This guy Roberts knows his stuff. Keep watching this company.