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Thinking Beyond Ethanol

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Ethanol as a biofuel may soon reach practical limits in the US and frankly is clouded with questions about its economic and environmental utility. However, the fermentation systems for producing ethanol can be adapted to produce much more valuable products using special microbes developed at some of the most promising green energy and biotech companies. The result is enticing, as we read in “Brazil: The Bossa Nova of Biofuels” from Biofuels Digest:

Another wave of next-generation renewable drop-in fuel companies, Amyris, LS9, Gevo and Dupont, are also investing in and partnering with Brazil’s sugarcane fermentation biorefineries. Why? Because their emerging technologies from cellulosic microbes (yeast, algae, fungus and bacteria) can use the same ethanol fermentation facilities in the US corn belt and in Brazil’s sugarcane belt to produce bio-crude, green diesel, petrol and biojet.

The simplicity is astounding. Here’s the big idea. Take an existing, stranded ethanol factory or conglomerate. Buy it for a substantial discount. Start with cheap sugar. Drop in a new Amyris, LS9, Gevo, or Cobalt microbe/ bug in the same fermentation vat and what do you get? An integrated biorefinery that can use cheap, sustainable sugars to produce renewable diesel, aviation fuel, and biobutanol – fuels that are compatible with existing petroleum pipelines, storage, petrol stations, and vehicle engines today.

In the near future, these fermentation-based biorefineries will be able to convert multiple inputs from cellulosic sugars–bagasse, switchgrass, wood chips, municipal solid waste, and glycerin–into a diverse set Of outputs, including renewable diesel, aviation fuel, bio-crude oil, biochemicals and biopolymers with significant GHG reductions and carbon emissions compared to petrochemical hydrocarbons.

This is an important lesson in innovation. Don’t live with current assumptions. Look at existing technologies, processes, and products as simply a stepping stone to something more valuable, and then ask what is next. If I have raw materials and processing stations that can use microbes to convert sugars into a biofuel, why be satisfied with the least valuable biofuel around? Why not look at the higher-value products that similar technology could produce? That’s the genius behind some of these rising bioproducts companies.

Speaking about bioproducts, let me encourage any chemical engineers out there to join me at the AIChE Annual Meeting, where the Division that I chair, the Forest Bioproducts Division, is hosting numerous sessions dealing with the exciting developments in biorefineries and value-added products from cellulosic biomass. That’s where some of the best potential is: energy and chemical products from something besides the food that people need to eat.

Amyris Biotechnologies logoIn my ongoing work on analyzing the intellectual property landscape in biofuels, one of the most impressive companies I’ve run across is Amyris, a renewable products company whose clever use of synthetic biology goes far beyond biofuels. Amyris was founded by Kinkead Reiling, Neil Renninger, and Jack D. Newman who met at Berkeley and founded Amyris in 2003, headquartered in Emeryville, California. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they first developed their technology under a non-profit initiative to provide a reliable and affordable source of artemisinin, an anti-malarial therapeutic. It was viewed as a long-shot, but they found success that paved the way for the growth of the company into other areas. They are now developing new microbial strains that can produce other useful molecules from renewable feedstocks. This industrial synthetic biology platform is providing alternatives to a broad range of petroleum-sourced products. he extremely useful molecule farnesene is an important part of their business. It provides a compound that can be used to produce flavors, perfumes, detergents, cosmetics, biodiesel, and other products.

This week Amyris created a stir by announcing a record number of deals and partnerships for a single week (a record among bioenergy companies, according to Biofuels Digest). These partnerships include P&G, Total, Soliance, Cosan, M&G Finanziaria, and Shell:

Amyris has taken it up a notch with a series of stunners surrounding its synthetic farsenene, which it has named Biofene – the first product that Amyris is seeking to produce at commercial scale.

Beyond its success this week with Biofene announcements, which are the basis for the P&G, M&G and Soliance partnerships — there are the broader arrangements with Cosan to develop a platform in renewable chemicals, and the equity agreement with Total that will provide needed capital as well as a broader platform for Amyris’s expansion into hydrocarbon fuels.

The mysterious agreement with Shell, regarding diesel, is one to watch. The decidedly vague disclosure was buried in Amyris’ amended S-1A registration statement, but not otherwise mentioned in a flurry of press releases from the company as it promotes its expansion in this pre-IPO environment. Shell Western Trading & Supply is one of 17 Shell trading companies that buy and sell to customers within and outside of Shell.

This news shows an interesting example of companies forming partnerships with an innovative start-up with great technology and apparently highly valuable IP. According to my Patbase search, Amyris has 21 patent families, quite a large number for such a young company. They clearly have been active and aggressive in pursuing patent protection, and those patents are critical for the meaningful partnerships they are now forming. It’s a great unfolding story of open innovation and technology transfer.

The story extends beyond the US. They have operations in Brazil, for example, which is one of the world’s hotbeds for bioenergy, bioproducts, and collaborative innovation.

Further information comes from today’s article, “Amyris: farnesene and the pursuit of value, valuations, validation and vroom,” also from Biofuels Digest.

My recent visit to three beautiful regions of Brazil included opportunities to learn more about the economic climate and the future of innovation. Entrepreneurial opportunities are tremendous for innovative and bold Brazilians, in spite of the challenges that come with extremely expensive capital, high taxation, and occasional bureaucratic barriers. Brazil continues rising rapidly, on its way to be one of the world’s great superpowers. The spirit of Brazil was contagious!

The opportunities from the agricultural potential of Brazil are mind-boggling. The biodiversity of the few parts I saw was overwhelming, and that was only a minute sampling. By strengthening the airport system in Brazil, there are many opportunities to move away from supplying bulk commodities like fiber and coffee to providing value-added consumer products shipped directly to consumer markets. A nationwide effort to enhance transportation is needed (and is underway). One product area where I eagerly await further progress is in the field of beverages. For example, all over Brazil there are drinks based on the guarana berry from the Amazon, including the wildly popular Antarctica brand carbonated beverage. These are more popular than cola beverages and frankly, they taste much better. This one of many Brazilian flavors waiting to emerge into the US market.

Brazilian businesses have also evolved a variety of interesting business models, including efficient methods for managing buffets where you pay by the kilo. I would welcome that approach here.

The business area that most impressed me for its innovation was in the field of education, and distance education is particular. I had the privilege of meeting with the CEO of POSEAD, a remarkable company offering distance learning service to Spanish and Portuguese speakers. They have drawn upon 40 years of experience in a non-profit educational organization, CETEB, along with many years of commercial experience, to create a rapidly growing business that solves some of the real problems of education and training in emerging nations, where the cost of commuting to a school or training center may exceed monthly incomes. They have developed advanced diagnostics and delivery systems to really understand what a student is doing, what they need, and how to get them to move forward. There are so many mistakes that can be made by newcomers in this area, especially in meeting the needs of Spanish and Portuguese speakers, but they’ve figured out how to avoid them and have created a remarkable efficiency in their systems that results in extremely low cost.

Some of the innovation in education goes back to a remarkable woman, Rosa Pessina, who long ago recognized that the pressure to build more schools to accommodate burgeoning classes in the earlier grades was treating a symptom, not the cause of the problem. Her analysis showed that class sizes were suffering because too many students were failing to advance in school, resulting in low graduation rates and high class sizes as kids went back through the same grade more than once. She then developed programs for accelerated learning to help these kids quickly get back to the right grade for their age, making the students feel better about the class they were in and enhancing motivation. This was the beginning of the non-profit organization CETEB, and those who participate in its accelerated learning programs have a 94% success rate, if I remember correctly–an extremely high percentage that go on to graduate. CETEB’s services include distance learning tools to help Portuguese and Spanish speakers. There is a huge opportunity here for the United States, where we have the children of many Spanish-speaking immigrants doing poorly in the schools. If they do not gain an education, the risk for ongoing poverty and crime is much higher. By accelerating their progress and helping them gain education at low cost, remarkable social good could be achieved here in the U.S. Governors, CETEB awaits your call!

There are layers of innovation in other areas in both CETEB and POSEAD, including how they quality and prepare content, how they form alliances, how they manage the challenges of certification and regulatory burdens, and in general how they identify and meet the needs of students and communities. There are brilliant minds at work here, and I feel that it’s time for US schools, companies, and governments to explore collaborative efforts. I’d be happy to help make a connection.

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