If there’s a high-risk, high-reward startup in town, it’s Joule Unlimited. The Bedford, MA-based company got started in 2007, has raised more than $160 million in total funding, and is trying to reinvent the fuel and chemical industries from the ground up. Or, more accurately, from the sun down.
Now the company is going through a big leadership change. Bill Sims is stepping down after four years as CEO (he will stay on the board), and co-founder and chairman Noubar Afeyan from Flagship Ventures is stepping in as interim CEO. At the same time, Joule has promoted relative newcomer Paul Snaith, a Shell veteran, to president and chief operating officer (he joined the firm in early 2012 and became chief business officer).
The company has also raised new money to advance its commercial vision. In a statement, Afeyan said Joule is entering “a new phase of demonstration and deployment bolstered by $50 million in newly committed capital” and that the company is starting to move “from late-stage development to global production of renewable fuels and chemicals.”
Joule, which was founded by Flagship, has developed a system that mimics photosynthesis and uses genetically engineered organisms—fed with sunlight, carbon dioxide, non-potable water, and nutrients—to produce diesel fuel, ethanol, and commodity chemicals. Unlike other biofuel approaches, the process doesn’t require the use of fresh water, food crops, or fermentation, according to the company. If the technology works on a large scale and is economical—yes, some very big ifs—it could make for a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
That’s the vision, anyway. Joule has been testing its system at sunny facilities in Hobbs, NM, and Leander, TX. It has also opened a subsidiary in the Netherlands called Joule Fuels to focus on production and expects to start building commercial plants next year; the first available product will be ethanol, slated for early 2015.
If all goes well, we expect to hear a lot more about the production side of things in the coming year or two. If not, this will be one heck of a write-off for the company’s investors—and the renewable fuels industry.