If hydrogen cars ever come to market, it might be because of Hepatitis C.
Wildcat Discovery Technologies has adopted the rapid-prototyping and high-performance computing techniques devised in drug discovery and genetic engineering to the world of energy. Currently, traditional battery makers might devise a handful of materials and test them on hundreds, if not thousands of batteries over an extended period of time, said Wildcat CEO Mark Gresser.
By contrast, Wildcat concocts about 250 different substance over the course of a week – eliminating or adding a few molecules at a time or shifting their placement in a matrix – and tests these substances in real-world experiments or computer simulations.
"We will get to 1,000 [substances] a week soon," said Mark Gresser, CEO of Wildcat. "These are tried and true techniques in pharmaceuticals and life sciences we think will work quite well in cleantech."
The company has already developed a metallic power that could be used to bind hydrogen in a tank, thereby reducing the need for high-pressure storage or pumps.
Now, it is working on a materials for electrodes and electrolytes for lithium-ion batteries. A carbon sequestration molecule is also in the works.
In some ways, Wildcat and two other companies – Intermolecular and Genomatica – culminate the ongoing, and often misunderstood, convergence of biology and electronics. In the most basic terms, the convergence is as follows: DNA is really a chemical factory for making other molecules. Genes, thus, can be exploited, combined or copied to produce industrial materials.
"To defend themselves, plants can't run away," said Tali Somekh, an investor at Musea Ventures. Instead, "they make a bunch of weird chemicals."
One of the initial signature moments came when Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark gave Stanford $150 million to inaugurate an interdisciplinary program called Bio-X. Researchers at IBM and people like Steve Jurvetson then began to implore researchers and start-ups to take cues from nature or explore synthetic biology, or the science of re-creating natural materials in the lab.
Companies like Amyris and Cambrios Technologies then sprung up that devised genetically modified organisms that could produce handy chemicals, like medicine or fuel (Amyris) or semiconductor insulators. To many in the public, synthetic biology conjured up images of Frankenbugs, surreptitious surveillance or genetically modified foods. To investors, it all sounded like a long wait for a payoff.
Instead of bugs, Wildcat and the like are effectively now porting the tools developed to manipulate genes and build drugs that target their interactions. The connection to pharmaceutical is more than abstract. One of Wildcat's founders is Peter Schultz, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, the Institute Director at Genomics Institute of Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) and the founder of Symyx, Affymax, Syrrx, Kalypsys, Phenomix (which is working on the Hep C drug), Ambrx and Ilypsa. Schultz is one of the architects of Norvatis' drug discovery platforms.
Wildcat's two other founders – Robert Downs and Donald Murphy – came, respectively, from Saturn and Applied Materials. Schultz, interestingly, is also an advisor to algae fuel/chemical maker Biolight Harvesting. Science-heavy venture firm CMEA has invested in Wildcat, Biolight and Intermolecular.
Similarly, Genomatica, another UC San Diego firm, morphed from molecular modeling tools for pharma to tools for green versions of industrial chemicals.
Will it work? Wildcat's prototyping does take onerous chemistry experiments off of the back of battery makers, who excel at logistics, packaging and low-cost manufacturing. Wildcat, he added, does not just do computer simulations. It sells powders.
"We envision selling kilograms so people can build prototypes," Gresser said. "Other people to our knowledge are not synthesizing materials in high throughput."
To scale up, the company may partner with industrial concerns and then either charge royalties, share in revenue or some combination of the two.
Large companies, though, are often skeptical about licensing technology from start-ups. Wildcat also needs to mine lucrative paths. The company got founded when it appeared that hydrogen would be a big market.
If anything, the company can shift rapidly.
"The nice thing is, you can get results in a week," he said.
Learn how to differentiate your company through greener product lines at Greening the Supply Chain on September 17 in Boston.