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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

State of the US biofuels industry

On Tuesday, the MIT alumni club in Silicon Valley hosted a freewheeling discussion by four executives from leading US biofuels companies, discussing the opportunities and challenges of building a new industry from scratch.

Update May 12: The video and program have been posted.

A capacity crowd of more than 100 people heard John Melo (CEO of Amyris), Jonathan Wolfson (CEO and co-founder of Solazyme), Bob Mayer (CEO of Cobalt) and Noubar Afeyan (a VC who is chairman and co-founder of LS9, Midori and Joule) discuss the industry. As the organizer of the event, I was pleased to hear that it was the first time all four had spoken together.

As CEOs of two of a handful of public biofuels companies, Melo and Wolfson have often been paired and seemed ready to complete each other’s sentences; both had just come off earnings calls — Solazyme on Monday and Amryis on Tuesday. For the MIT alumni, it was gratifying to hear that the other two men, Mayer and Afeyan, had doctorates in chemical engineering from MIT, and in fact Afeyan noted his 1987 dissertation was on converting cellulose to ethanol.

The four had a largely convergent view of the business and technical environment. The clear reality is that not having scale or huge balance sheets to fund ramping up to scale, the firms need to be nimble in arbitraging opportunities to more cost-effectively produce commodities that are needed by the market.

However, each emphasized a different approach to making money in that environment:
  • Melo said Amryis is engineering microbes (i.e. yeast) to convert carbohydrates into high-value chemicals. Because of his four years at BP USA — which included squeezing small ethanol plants that lacked their own distribution — he’s convinced that any path to success includes vertical integration.
  • Wolfson quoted Solazyme’s tagline that “we convert low cost plant sugars to high value renewable oils – for fuel, for food, for life.” The emphasis was on technical flexibility that allows creating oils for blending that are in regulatory favor — such as rapeseed oil in Europe.
  • For Cobalt, Mayer said the goal is to ferment hemicellulose to butanol — such as from sugar cane bagasse — without distributing the sugar production. The company hopes to exploit an secular trend in butanol prices rising faster than oil prices, at the same time that natural gas prices fall.
  • As managing director of Flagship Ventures, Afeyan has funded a number of biofuels startups, starting in 2003 with Mascoma that was converting cellulose to ethanol using the same organism (clostridium) that Afeyan studied in his PhD dissertation. He outlind the technologies of three of his companies: LS9 (engineering e-coli to create fatty alcohols), Midori Renewables (using a solid catalyst to degrade cellulose to produce sugar at 1/4 of current prices) and Joule (which would use cyanobacteria to directly convert CO2 to n-alkanes).
Afeyan aptly summed up the challenge of biofuels (and other tech entrepreneurs) when he said that entrepreneurs were chasing “what is not yet known not to work.”
MITCNC panelists (left to right): John Melo, Jonathan Wolfson, Bob Mayer and Noubar Afeyan
A major theme of the industry was partnering — for access to capital, distribution and (presumably) ultimate exit.

Noting a parallel to the funding of the biotech industry by oil and chemicals 30 years, Afeyan wondered when the CEO of the big oil and chemical companies will take a real interest in biofuels (rather than “just run nice ads”).

Mayer held out Dupont as an example of a company that “gets it.” Each of the CEOs had their own key partners. For Amyris it’s Total (a French oil company), for Solazyme it includes Dow, and Cobalt is partnered with Solvay/Rhodia, a specialty chemical company based on Brazil.

Not surprising for an industry that produces commodities (even high value one), the three CEOs repeatedly talked about execution. From his own career, Mayer said “industrial biotechnology is very much about execution.” Melo said the industry needed to “industrialize the process of developing the technology,” much as the biotech industry succeeded in doing. Meanwhile, Wolfson said success for a biofuels company — as with any other innovative Silicon Valley company — was about continuously innovating and creating new technologies to keep ahead of other companies.

The two public company CEOs were very wary of the unpredictable nature of government incentives. As Melo, “the US doesn’t care about long term strategic issues.” He questioned whether the Federal Renewable Fuel Standard will be around in five years, while Wolfson worried about the variability and arbitrary changes in life cycle carbon estimates — whether by private methodologies (such as LCA) or from state or Federal regulators such as the California Air Resources Board.

The challenge for the firms — and the investors — is that building a biofuels industry will take years, with many shifts of market and regulatory forces along the way. Melo said it took John D. Rockefeller 30 years to make oil a successful transportation fuel — although he hopes that biofuels can make it in 15 years. In the meantime, he said the first priority of any firm to generate revenues and cash flow to stick around. Or as Wolfson said, “In order to be involved in a commodity market, you need to be around long enough to get there.”

In the meantime, Melo predicted the next 24 months will bring consolidations and exits for many companies. I am inclined to agree: it probably won’t be as brutal as solar — where there are more companies — but clearly firms without positive cash flow (or at least solid balance sheets) will find it increasingly difficult to get the capital necessary, particularly as the IPO market appears to have closed for biofuels companies.

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