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Inside the Mascoma Labs: Tracking Ethanol-Making Microbes from Lebanon to Rome

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a strain of yeast, which will soon graduate from the labs in Lebanon to the pilot facility in Rome. The exciting thing, according to Margolis, is that there are more efficient microbes than that stain of yeast in the firm’s pipeline.

Mascoma, which was founded by professors who work down the road from the company at Dartmouth College, recently moved into the new offices and labs from a nearby technology incubator that is also in Lebanon. Margolis told me that Adimab, the antibody discovery startup co-founded by Dartmouth professor and company CEO Tillman Gerngross, has expanded into Mascoma’s former space in the incubator.

On a floor below the microbiology labs are the proving grounds for the microbes, where experiments are performed to test how well they eat feedstocks such as corn stover, paper sludge, and wood chips. These labs had a sweet and yeasty smell not unlike some of the breweries I’ve visited over the years. (In fact, Margolis said, the firm’s informal name for the mixtures containing the feedstocks and microbes in the lab is “beer.”) This is the lab where the feedstocks are broken down, by means such as grinding and adding acid, before they are fermented with the microbes to make ethanol. Margolis showed me wood chips that had been broken down into what looked like brown sugar. In the next room, there were about two dozen 1-liter fermenters brewing up small batches of ethanol.

Still, there are some big challenges ahead for Mascoma. The company says it has already raised about $100 million in private equity and another $100 million in government grants and loans. Yet that money won’t cover the costs of the commercial-scale facility the firm has planned in Michigan. Over the summer, Mascoma chairman Bruce Jamerson transitioned from his role as CEO of the company to lead the operations of Frontier Renewable Resources, the commercialization subsidiary of Mascoma that is spearheading the effort to finance and build the plant in Kinross. Mascoma hasn’t finished raising the money to finance the Kinross plant, which is expected initially to produce 20 million gallons of ethanol per year, said Michael Ladisch, chief technology officer of the company.

On the scientific side, Margolis said, the firm will likely have to develop a different microorganism for each feedstock used in its process. That means lots of work will need to be done at the firm’s facilities in New Hampshire and New York in the years to come. Which should also keep Feinberg busy hunting down more tough bugs.

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