Tag Archives: LS9

What Are the Major Alternative Fuels Interests of Oil Majors?

As the alternative fuels industry diversifies and scales up, financing is always the key to technology commercialization. While several sources of financing drive the whole industry forward, we investigate the trends of corporate financing from oil majors, based on a non-exhaustive database of over 1,000 deals and partnership engagements from 2000 through September 2014. With the focus on financial engagement, we only look into the private placement, equity stake, joint venture (JV), mergers and acquisitions (M&A), other than general partnerships. For example, we counted BP’s bioethanol JV plant with British Sugar, but we didn’t include BP’s research work with the Energy Biosciences Institute. We then drew a graph based on the investment counts (rather than invested companies) of the seven most activate oil majors in our database, namely, Shell, BP, Total, Valero, Chevron, Petrobras and Reliance. Particularly, repeated investment activities on the same company would be counted as multiple. We further sorted the investment by six core technology families – algae, biomass to sugar, catalysis, crop development, fermentation (and enzyme development), and pyrolysis/gasification.

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From our analysis of their activities in the alternative fuels industry, we find that:

  • BP leads the investment frequency in a variety of technology families. Particularly, it has a strong focus on the crop development by transgenics and breeding, with repeated investments made to Chromatin (client registration required) and Mendel Biotechnology (client registration required). It also continues investing on biomass to sugar technology including to handle cellulosic biomass, such as REAC Fuel (client registration required).
  • Shell is not a fan of crop development, but has a wide coverage on other technologies. For example, it invested on multiple rounds and formed a JV with Iogen (client registration required), but terminated the JV in 2012. Then the oil giant formed partnerships and JVs with Codexis (client registration required), Cosan, and Novozymes to continue its interests in cellulosic ethanol. Shell shifted its shares in Codexis to Raizen, its ethanol JV with Cosan and “formed the largest sugar and ethanol company in the world”. It also partnered with Virent (client registration required) on the biomass catalytic conversion to produce renewable gasoline, and Cellana (HR BioPetroleum) on algae biofuel. Moreover, Shell Foundation also funded Husk Power System (client registration required) on gasification development.
  • Total and Chevron are the most active corporate investors in the fermentation domain. Total did the private placement on the IPO of Gevo (client registration required) and formed a JV with Amyris (client registration required) with both focusing on corn and sugar cane feedstocks. Gevo is focusing on isobutanol fermentation and Amyris is doing the bioconversion to produce isoprenoids. On the other hand, Chevron invested in Codexis (client registration required) and LS9 (client registration required) with its concentration on the genetic engineering, while LS9 was acquired by Renewable Energy Group in early 2014 (client registration required). All invested companies by these two giants are diversifying their revenue streams with drop-in fuels, specialty chemicals, and/or drugs in downstream markets.
  • Velero has a strong focus on the drop-in fuel production either by bioconversion or catalysis. Valero owns 10 facilities in the U.S. with over 1,000 MGY corn ethanol capacity. However, it is also interested in cellulosic ethanol with its funding of Qteros, Mascoma Corporation (client registration required), and Enerkem (client registration required). Additionally, the focus on waste feedstock can be reflected by its investments in the ill-fated Terrabon (client registration required), which was focused on wet waste-to-gasoline.
  • Investments of oil majors in developing countries are more constrained by local resources and policy drivers. For example, Reliance is investing the algae technology developers such as Algae.Tec (client registration required), Aurora Algae (client registration required), and Algenol Biofuels. Petrobras is concerned with fuel production from sugar cane or bagasse, such as BTG-BTL (client registration required) and BIOecon, which combine the feedstock advantage and local policy driver. Other oil majors not listed in the graph, such as Chinese oil majors, Sinopec and PetroChina (CNPC), are shifting their focuses from food ethanol to cellulosic ethanol and coal-to-ethanol, which is responding to the call of the Chinese government to discourage the food ethanol industry (see the report “Fueling China’s Vehicle Market with Advanced and Coal-based Ethanol” — client registration required.)
  • Less active oil majors in this space include ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. They only made sporadic investments – such as Synthetic Genomics (client registration required) by ExxonMobil and ADM by ConocoPhilips. Additionally, ExxonMobil mobile recently teamed up with Iowa State University to research pyrolysis.

Alternative Fuels: Rating Bioprocessing Companies on the Lux Innovative Grid

As the alternative fuels industry rapidly approaches maturity, reports of IPOs and commercialization have blended with headlines about spectacular failures and cheap acquisitions. The remaining players navigate a landscape of prospective partners, funding, and scale as well as serious uncertainty (read: opportunity).

A thorough examination of the field reveals contenders, dark horses, and long-shots within several technology classes, including pretreatment, bioprocessing, and gasification. While many of these companies appear similar on paper, we applied the Lux Innovation Grid in a recent report to rate them in three dimensions – business execution, technical value, and maturity. Drawn from that report, this week’s graphic reveals likely winners and losers among Alternative Fuel bioprocessing companies which, as a group, offer strategic flexibility in feedstock and end-products.

The crowded Dominant Quadrant is due in part to the successful IPOs of Amyris, Gevo, and Solazyme, as well as the impending commercial scale of companies like LS9, Cobalt, and LanzaTech. Aemetis edges into the Dominant Quadrant thanks on the technological potential of its Z microbe, which simultaneously breaks down cellulosic biomass and converts the sugars into isoprene. ZeaChem also lands in the Dominant Quadrant due to high partnership and momentum scores, fueled by a recent funding round and joint development agreement with P&G.

Cellulosic ethanol producers Qteros and Mascoma both claim low cost production and robust organisms, but both fall into the High Potential Quadrant due to sagging business execution scores. Qteros’ Q microbe could lead to more efficient processing of biomass; but it recently laid off most of its staff, including its CEO. Touting similar technology, Mascoma filed for an IPO* in September, but could see its public launch hindered by capital intensity and slowing momentum.

Lastly, OPXBiotechnologies shows some interesting potential for developing microbes for acrylic acid (with partner Dow) and diesel as part of the ARPA-E funded Electrofuels project: https://portal.luxresearchinc.com/research/tidbit/8436*. But, on the fuels side, it falls into the Long-Shot Quadrant due to a competitive landscape score of 2, and a partnership score of 2, with an overall Lux Take of “wait and see.” Joule, on the other hand, we rate as a “caution” thanks to a barrier to growth score of 1, no commercial partners, and wholly unproven claims.

Source: Lux Research report “Refining Alternative Fuels Innovators into Winners and Losers.”

* Client registration required.

The boom in bio-based materials and chemicals is really a boom in synthetic biology

Venture capitalists (VCs) invested $3.1 billion in bio-based chemicals and materials developers since 2004. As many of those start-ups reach megaton scales and launch IPOs, Lux Research analysts sought to find which technologies venture investors favored. This week’s graphic comes from their just published report (client registration required), in which analysts tracked 177 venture transactions involving 79 companies operating in five technology categories – biocomposites, bioprocessing, thermochemical processes, crop modification, and algae. In short, they found:

Bioprocessing developers brewed up $1.89 billion in 96 deals. Bioprocessing developers – especially synthetic biology companies – landed more than half the total venture capital invested since 2004. Encompassing technologies like fermentation, phage display, natural breeding and synthetic biology, all bioprocessing platforms employ some sort of organism as a “factory” for creating products as diverse as sweeteners and catalyst supports. Intrinsically flexible, these platforms enable the likes of Amyris, Codexis, LS9, and Solazyme to produce multiple products from multiple feedstocks, thus ensuring a relatively low-cost route to high-value compounds and providing a hedge against feedstock and product price volatility.

Thermochemical technologies raked in $577.0 million in 31 deals. Thermochemical processing encompasses technologies like gasification (Enerkem), catalysis (Avantium, Inventure), and acid hydrolysis (HCL Cleantech, BlueFire) that sometimes convert biomass to an intermediate like sugars or syngas, and sometimes go all the way to an end product. (e.g. Virent’s paraxylene is used in Pepsi’s famed 100% bio-based PET bottle

Crop modification companies harvested $371.7 million in 28 deals. IPOs are less common fates for crop modification companies which, as you may have guessed, modify crops to be more amenable and economical for use in bio-based materials and chemicals. Instead, companies in this category, like Athenix and FuturaGene, usually end up being acquired by the likes of Syngenta, Monsanto, DowAgro, or Bayer CropScience.

Algae developers saw $190.5 million in 13 deals. Notably, that figure only encompasses start-ups developing algae strains, cultivation systems, and processing equipment for creating industrial chemicals. Representative developers include Bio Architecture Lab, a macroalgae developer, and Israel’s Rosetta Green, which had raised $1.5 million in venture funds, but more recently brought in almost $6 million in an IPO on the Tel Aviv TASE. Excluded from this category are companies primarily developing fuels (which we cover in our Alternative Fuels Intelligence service), and companies like Solazyme and Green Pacific Biologicals that use algae for fermentation (and, thus, are categorized in bioprocessing, above).

Biocomposites developers brought in $108.9 million in a mere nine transactions. This category includes bioplastic blends, some starch plastics, and bio-based foams, from the likes of Cereplast, EcoSynthetix, Ecovative Design, and Entropy Resins. Because of the relatively simple nature of these technologies, VCs often don’t see them as investment opportunities – forcing companies like SoyWorks and Biop Biopolymer to find other sources of funding.

Source: Lux Research report “Seeding Investment in the Next Crop of Bio-Based Materials and Chemicals.”

Investors pump $930 million into alternative fuel technologies

Graphic of the WeekIn 2010, investors gave $930 million to alternative fuels start-ups, a four-year low. However, investment climbed dramatically to an all-time high of $698 million for companies with flexible technologies that can use a variety of feedstocks or generate diverse end products. Flexibility increases a technology’s addressable market, provides secondary revenue streams, and unshackles technologies from price volatility.

Specifically, synthetic biology start-ups – which develop novel organisms ranging from Escherichia coli (E. coli) to yeast – have attracted the most funding since 2004: $1.84 billion or 28.4% of the total. Investment dipped just 16.7% from $436.5 million in 2007 to $358.3 million in 2009, and investments actually peaked last year at $447.0 million, representing 25% growth over 2009. Driving this growth were companies with novel and flexible technologies to make both fuels and chemicals, such as Solazyme ($60 million Series D), LanzaTech ($18 million Series B), and LS9 ($30 million Series D). Since those 2010 transactions, Solazyme and several other venture-backed companies in the space have launched successful IPOs (Client registration required).

But investors shouldn’t ignore other flexible technologies. Investment in thermochemical processes (pyrolysis, gasification, torrefaction) did not trail far behind synbio. Technologies in this category account for 43.3% of the funding thus far in 2011. Representative companies include Virent and Elevance, whose catalytic processes produce a range of fuels, rubbers, oils, and plastics. Technologies capable of using agricultural, solid, or gaseous waste, such as LanzaTech, GlycosBio, and Ignite Energy, present further opportunities for investors.

Biofuels: Synthetic biology leads in investment dollars, but will it deliver?

Biofuels: Synthetic biology leads in investment dollars, but will it deliver?Although synthetic biology companies trail other biofuel firms in terms of commercialization and scale, their flashy claims of spinning custom-built microbes into complex chemicals and drop-in fuels have captured the attention and dollars of investors. Last year, we saw LS9 and Solazyme, among others, secure large funding rounds. Additionally, Amyris Biotechnologies successfully launched the market segment’s first IPO. Gevo followed suit with a February IPO, in which it raised $107 million. And, just last week, Solazyme filed its own plans for public launch, with aims to raise $100 million.

As our Lux Innovative Grid for synbio indicates, many competitors land in the Undistinguished and Long-shot quadrants – although plenty of potential contenders join Amyris, Gevo and Solazyme in the Dominant quadrant.

In addition to its spot in the Dominant quadrant here, relative newcomer BioAmber occupies a similar position in our Grid for the Fermentation segment of biofuels. While it’s focused on the production of succinic acid – a flavoring agent, plasticizer, and coating, among other things – the firm’s genetic modification technology also applies to the fermentation of adipic acid, which was the focus of a recently signed licensing agreement. Its position in the Dominant quadrant here stems from a high business execution score due, in part, to strong partnerships with Mitsui, Samsung Ventures, and Greenfield Ethanol.

Metabolix and LS9, both of which modify microbes to convert sugar to fuels and chemicals, round out the Dominant quadrant. Metabolix’s main efforts are through a joint venture with ADM to produce polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which is at commercial scale today. Its PHA is used for agricultural mulch film, a polypropylene replacement in consumer products applications, and for packaging applications. LS9’s strong partner list and technology to produce alkanes in single-celled organisms (see the August 3, 2010 LRBJ – client registration required) positions the company among the leaders in the group.

Source: Lux Research report “Today’s Top Technologies in Bioplastics and Biofuels.”

Tate & Lyle and Roquette take synthetic biology further into food, personal care, and agriculture

Not one, not two, but three synthetic biology food-related announcements recently hit the wires in short order. First there was Abunda Nutrition’s debut, and the company’s plan to use synthetic biology to produce ingredients like vanillin and nutritional fats and oils (see the November 2, 2010 LRTJ*) of a contract manufacturing agreement between Tate & Lyle and Amyris to produce farnesene, a set of compounds that includes, among other things, the scent of apples. And topping it off was the report of a joint venture between Roquette and Solazyme to make “oil-, protein-, and fiber-based products aimed at delivering improved performance with a superior health profile compared to ingredients in the market today.” According to the announcement, Roquette will fund and build a jointly owned, commercial-scale manufacturing plant at one of its corn wet mills. The plant’s annual production capacity will be on the order of tens of thousands of tons.

We’ve discussed the entrance of synthetic biology into food before, and these announcements naturally bolster that trend (see the June 29, 2010 LRBJ*). Likewise, we have mentioned the convergence of agriculture, energy, and chemicals in previous posts (see the September 15, 2009 LRBJ*). Adding public announcements to discussions we’ve had with companies in the space, we see an increasing flight in industrial biotech from fuels to other products. It remains to be seen whether those “other products” will be synthetic biology technologies such as these, or algae companies looking to secure revenues while they are at small scale. Either way, synthetic biology is no longer an activity that companies in food, personal care, or agriculture can watch from the sidelines. Like their peers in energy and chemicals already have done, clients in these industries should examine the likes of Amyris, Solazyme, LS9, and Blue Marble as strategic partners for future products.

* Client registration required.

EPA’s 2011 blending mandates signal a wake-up call for cellulosic biofuels

Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its proposed RFS2 renewable fuel blending mandates for 2011, a surprisingly pragmatic piece of regulatory action. The RFS2 is an expanded version of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS1) program modified by the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, and it requires the EPA to set renewable fuel standards each November for the following year. 

While there is generally good news for biodiesel, the RFS2 is a veritable reality check for cellulosic biofuels cheerleaders.

Here are the blending mandates the recent regulatory action proposes: for cellulosic biofuel (0.015%), biomass-based diesel (0.68%), advanced biofuel (0.77%), and total renewable fuels (7.95%). All proposed mandates apply to any gasoline and diesel produced or imported in year 2011. In setting these targets, the EPA reaffirmed the scheduled advanced biofuels mandate of 1.35 billion gallons, as well as the 800-million-gallon blending mandate for biodiesel.

However, for the second year in a row, it had to dramatically slash the cellulosic biofuel mandate from RFS1 targets, this time from 250 million gallons to a 6-million-gallon to 25-million-gallon range. As a result, and because the EPA didn’t slash the overall mandate, blenders will now have to look elsewhere for 124 million to 144 million gallons of qualifying advanced biofuels to make up the portion of the advanced biofuels mandate not met by the cellulosic biofuel or biodiesel targets. Options include importing sugarcane ethanol, finding additional biofuel production, or buying appropriate Renewable Identification Number (RINs) credits to make up the difference. Clients should monitor companies like Dynamic Fuels (a joint-venture of Tyson Foods and Syntroleum Corporation), LS9, and INEOS to see if they can step up to the plate and provide this additional capacity.

The reception to this regulatory action has been mixed. While organizations like the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) took offense with the downward correction of the cellulosic biofuel mandate, seeing in it the potential to further hamper investment, others thought the EPA was optimistic to anticipate 25 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel supply. However, everyone agrees that the EPA didn’t really have a choice but to stay true to market realities.

In determining the applicable standards, it is required by law to conduct an in-depth evaluation of how much qualifying biofuel can be made available in the following year. If the projected available volume is less than the required volume specified in the statute, it must lower the required volume to match the projected amount. In short, the EPA must match its mandates to available production capacity.

Cellulosic biofuels were done in by the sluggish pace of commercialization of developers like Range Fuels, Gevo, Iogen, Enerkem, and others who have all frequently missed milestones for maturity and commercial penetration. If the latest projections are to be believed, this capacity picture is unlikely to alter significantly for the next three years to four years, in which time competing technologies could blaze critical inroads into the market and make the outlook for cellulosic biofuels even more bleak. This news should come as a definite cause for concern for investors in and champions of cellulosic biofuels, whose only respite might be new loan guarantee programs from the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture that are specifically engineered for cellulosic biofuels.

Meanwhile, as cellulosic biofuels grapple with this sobering reality, there are positives in the overall story for advanced biofuels in general. The EPA believes the overall mandate of 1.35 billion gallons of advanced biofuels in 2011 is enforceable, and we certainly agree. What is bad news for cellulosic biofuels might be good news for developers of other types of technology options like biodiesel or renewable diesel. Clients active in this domain should engage companies like Amyris, Solazyme, or Benefuel.