For Chas Eggert, CEO of startup OPX Biotechnologies, making money in the biochemical business is as much about process as it is product.
Sure, the Boulder, Colo.-based startup landed $17.5 million this week to push toward commercialization of two specific chemicals – bioacrylic and biodiesel – from two specific feedstocks, sugar and syngas.
But at a time when biofuel companies are struggling to stay afloat, let alone land more investment, Eggert believes that OPX's technology for developing microbes to make various biochemicals may set the company apart.
OPX essentially integrates genome technology developed by the University of Colorado at Boulder researchers, including founder and chief scientific officer Michael Lynch, which allows it to test out millions of genetic changes to microbes. That allows the company to pinpoint how to genetically engineer microbes for specific purposes, Eggert said Monday.
And that can speed the development – and lower the cost – of making microbes to turn a variety of feedstocks into many different end products, he said.
In other words, "One of the things our investors like is that we're not a one-trick pony," he said. The new round was led by Braemar Energy Ventures and included new investor Altira Group, as well as previous investors X/Seed Capital and Mohr Davidow Ventures, and comes on top of $4.9 million previously raised in two funding rounds since the company's 2007 founding.
Biochemical production is a small but growing sector of a larger biofuel market. Industrial chemicals, while offering a smaller market than that for fuel, can also offer steadier prices.
Take acrylic, a petroleum-derived product that's used in products from paint to diapers, Eggert said. Acrylic is a $10 billion global market, he said – and OPX believes it can make bioacrylic from sugar at 20 percent to 50 percent cheaper than the oil-based alternative.
The same cost advantages come from making bioacrylic from syngas, a mix of hydrogen and carbon dioxide that's made from a variety of feedstocks including agricultural and municipal waste, he said (see The Iron Man of Greentech Gets $20M). OPX is in discussion with various syngas producers, though Eggert wouldn't give any more details.
OPX's work on designing microbes to make bioacrylic – a process that took about 18 months from inception to current lab test levels – has also been applied to making biodiesel, he said. The company's process works with sugar or syngas as a feedstock, rather than many other processes that use oils or fats from plants like soy, jatropha or algae or waste from rendering plants or restaurants, he said.
Other biochemical companies include Genomatica, which has raised $23.5 million in two rounds with investors including Mohr Davidow Ventures, Alloy Ventures and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. The San Diego-based startup has developed ways to turn sugar into the solvent methyl ethyl ketone, or MEK, and the chemical 1,4-Butanediol, or BDO, using genetically engineered microbes (see Genomatica: Microbe-Made-Chemicals Could Save Empty Ethanol Plants and Genomatica Gets Microbes to Make Industrial Chemicals).
And San Francisco-based startup SynGest Inc. is planning to build an $80 million plant in Iowa to turn corncobs into bio-ammonia. That could serve as a cost-effective alternative for ammonia, a major ingredient of fertilizer now mainly made from natural gas (see Cars Into Electricity, Corncobs Into Ammonia).
OPX hopes to use the money it's raised to build a demonstration plant operating at large scale by the start of 2011, Eggert said. Commercial production could come about 18 months after that, he said.
OPX wants to be in the business of making chemicals and fuels itself, but is open to partnerships or joint ventures, he said. Eggert declined to discuss what other chemicals and feedstocks OPX may be designing microbes for right now.