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Why Is Monsanto Backing an Algae Fuel Startup?

algae field

Monsanto, the often-vilified agriculture giant, has made a deal that could actually do some good for sustainable development: The company this week formed a partnership with and made an equity investment in algae fuel startup Sapphire Energy (no word on the terms of the arrangement). What's going on?

Sapphire's main research is in what it calls "green crude," or an algae-based liquid that can be turned into diesel, gas, and jet fuel. Monsanto doesn't care about this; it's interest is in Sapphire's genetic research. The startup's genetic technology will be leveraged by Monsanto to isolate traits in algae (i.e. crop yield and performance) that could be applied to to corn, cotton, soybean, and other crops sold by Monsanto.

The partnership will benefit Sapphire, too. "Monsanto has always been at the forefront of agricultural technology developments and innovation," said Jason Pyle, CEO of Sapphire Energy, in a statement. "Through this collaborative partnership, we'll focus our leading-edge research agenda on some of the biggest questions facing both agriculture and energy. By leveraging our algae platform and tools to improve crop yield and enhance crop performance, Sapphire will be able to accelerate our ability to produce a renewable crude oil replacement and reduce our country's dependence on foreign oil."

Cash and research from Monsanto could give Sapphire a leg up on its many algae fuel competitors, which include Solazyme and Synthetic Genomics. This doesn't make it any easier to stomach Monsanto's latest moves in the world of genetically modified crops, but at least some of the company's money is going toward valuable clean energy research.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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  • b cole

    To learn about the fast-track commercialization of the algae production industry you may want to check out the National Algae Association, the trade association. The NAA engineering consortium has designed the first 100 algae production farm in the US with all CAPEX and OPEX.

  • jesse paquette

    one sentence. biofuels are produced by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Monsanto is the world leader in manufacturing GMOs.

  • John Williams

    That's a shame. Seeya Sapphire. Assimilated before you were even out of the gate. Damn. Buncha really good people, too. But when Monsanto wants a piece, you give Monsanto a piece.