The global chemical industry, worth trillions of dollars a year, has relied heavily on oil and natural gas. While we often associate the green business world with solar panels and electric cars, change is brewing in industries like chemicals as well with the adoption of greener, cleaner, and leaner production methods.
The environmental benefits of green chemistry are significant, avoiding the use of oil, saving energy, reducing pollution, and reducing the use of potentially toxic materials. The success of these approaches though ultimately depends on their commercial viability, not just on their environmental benefits. Genomatica, in San Diego, CA, is working to do just this, to prove not just that not only they can develop greener ways to produce chemicals, that they can do this in a profitable way.
When I spoke with the recently announced CEO of Genomatica, Christophe Schilling, he described their technology using microbes to produce chemicals. Arising from research Schilling did at UC San Diego while working on his PhD, Genomatica uses computer models to harness the power of microbes as living chemical factories.
To prove their technology, Genomatica is designing microbes and processes for making chemicals like 1,4-butanediol (BDO), and methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). These chemicals may not be household names, but millions of pounds are produced from fossil fuels each year, much of which goes on to produce plastics, solvents, and polymers. “The history of the chemical industry is tied to oil,” said Schilling, describing how their methods to produce chemicals are distinct, feeding their microbes sugars from plants rather than feeding petrochemical plants with oil.
The 1-4 butanediol they are engineering microbes to produce is used to make Spandex, drugs (pharmaceuticals), and plastics, among other things. Schilling estimates that their bio-production of BDO will be 25% cheaper to produce than the petrochemical process, assuming that the cost of sugar used to feed the microbes is 12 to 14 cents a pound, and the price of oil is $50 to $60 per barrel, or higher. They already have many of the steps for BDO production worked out, making more rapid progress than was originally expected. “There are 5 steps in the production of pure BDO,” said Schilling, adding that all of these steps had already been worked out in their lab to produce BDO that is 99% pure, or higher, a milestone recently announced. They are ready to scale up the process in a pilot plant, and working on securing funding for construction of the plant, hoping to start production in 2010.
The environmental benefits of their bio-production methods based on renewable resources provide value but they know they must compete with established methods based primarily on economic benefits. “The uptake of our technology is driven primarily by cost,” said Schilling, making the accomplishment of not just the technology milestones important, but the practical engineering milestones of working out the whole process just as important.
While the economic crisis has affected everyone to some extent, Schilling views the crisis not just as a problem but an opportunity. “Companies that have great technology, great people, and good plans can still get funding,” he said. “The crisis is a weeding out process, another form of evolution.” With some businesses having difficulty and laying off workers, Schilling views this as an opportunity to find talented workers. Some competitors like chemical companies have stalled their efforts to develop sustainable chemistry, leaving the opportunity to Genomatica. “Over the next two years if we can continue to advance, they’ll be looking for ways to expand with technology like ours,” said Schilling.
When I asked what he views as the most important factors for entrepreneurial success, Schilling responded: “Focus, Focus, Focus,” and being passionate about what they do.
Schilling seems to have the “Focus, Focus, Focus” part as well as the passion. Just as Genomatica evolves their microbes to find the successful ones, the market appears likely to select Genomatica as one of the winners if they continue their record of innovation and practical commercial application. With 35 employees today, Genomatica is taking things one step at a time while keeping their eye on future. “We will be the catalysts of change in this industry,” said Schilling. It’s not about putting the chemical industry out of business, but winning them over to change how they do business.
(image courtesy of Genomatica)
Glenn Croston is the author of “75 Green Businesses” (www.75GreenBusinesses.com), the e-book “Greening Your Business On a Budget”, and Starting Green (to be released September 2009). He is also the founder of Starting Up Green (www.StartingUpGreen.com), helping entrepreneurs from all backgrounds to start and grow successful green businesses. He can be reached at glenn(dot)croston(at)75greenbusinesses(dot)com.