Coskata, an ethanol startup that announced a partnership with General Motors last week, said it really owes its launch -- and all its success so far -- to bacteria from a swamp.
"We're smart, but we're not smarter than everybody else," said Todd Kimmel, a Coskata co-founder, earlier this month. "We found organisms that are unique and rare in nature."
It all began when Ralph Tanner, a microbiology professor at the University of Oklahoma, discovered in oxygen-free sediment in a swamp.
Kimmel had been looking for investments on behalf of Advanced Technology Ventures, when coal-gasification startup GreatPoint Energy, in which ATV had invested, recommended he look at gasification technologies for fuels.
He began weeding through patent literature and came across some of Tanner's research. Tanner had been working with Ray Huhnke, professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering at Oklahoma State University, on using anaerobic bacteria to make ethanol for five or six years.
They thought they had found a way to produce ethanol very efficiently using gases as nutrients. What piqued Kimmel's interest was initial analysis estimating the bacteria could produce ethanol at $1 per gallon from any feedstock.
To help evaluate the technology, Kimmel brought in Datta Rathin, founder of the renewable-solvent company Vertic Biosolvents and former vice president of research for the Michigan Biotechnology Institute.
"What gave me solace is I brought Datta in to evaluate this and he said he wanted to join," Kimmel said. Datta became a co-founder of Coskata and its chief scientific officer.
Datta researched the organisms' attributes, which led to Coskata's bioreactor design principles.
Nutrient tests in the lab delivered a fiftyfold improvement in productivity, leading Kimmel to the realization that the bacteria could potentially deliver ethanol for less than $1 per gallon.
"I thought this had all the merits for success," Kimmel said. "I found what I thought to be a really unique technology and pulled together the different pieces."
He brought in CEO Bill Roe and Richard Tobey, vice president of research and development and engineering, helped get Coskata $10 million in Series A funding and took on the role of chief operations officer for the startup. Now, with the GM partnership out in the open, Kimmel has decided to leave that role. ATV announced Friday that Kimmel is returning to the venture-capital firm as a principal, and will continue to actively advise Coskata while "scouring Silicon Valley and beyond for the next big innovation in cleantech."
"I'm energized from the Coskata launch and excited to return to ATV," he said. "Creating companies is something I am passionate about and enjoy and I'm eager to find the next disruptive technology and support teams tackling new challenges across the cleantech landscape."
Kimmel said he's particularly looking for companies involved in next-generation composite and building materials, bioplastics and energy-efficiency technologies for his next move.