Why Is Monsanto Backing an Algae Fuel Startup?

The often-vilified agriculture giant has made a deal that could actually do some good for sustainable development: a partnership with and an equity investment in algae fuel startup Sapphire Energy. What’s going on?

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.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more