While working at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, David Mead, Ph.D., helped to develop the technology behind TA cloning, now one of the most popular methods for cloning-amplified PCR products using Taq and other polymerases. That technology was sold to Invitrogen (www.invitrogen.com), where it was incorporated into products that earn millions of dollars each year.
In 1998, Dr. Mead and Tom Schoenfeld, Ph.D., cofounded Lucigen (www.lucigen.com) “to duplicate that kind of success,” Dr. Mead says. The initial idea behind Lucigen was to find better polymerases in extreme environments like those of Yellowstone National Park, according to Dr. Mead, president of Lucigen. When Phil Brumm, Ph.D., an expert in hydrolases, joined Lucigen, the company added biomass and biofuels projects to its agenda.
In August 2006, Lucigen consolidated the biomass and biofuels work into C5-6 Technologies (www.c56technologies.com), a company that specializes in making enzymes that break down complex biomass into 5- and 6-carbon sugars. Dr. Brumm and John Biondi, then COO at Lucigen, spun out C5-6 Technologies, where Dr. Brumm serves as CSO and Biondi as president. C5-6 Technologies and Lucigen operate independently but share facilities in Middleton, WI.
C5-6 Technologies plans to release its first products—a suite of enzymes to improve the efficiency of current methods for fermenting corn to ethanol—in the second half of 2008. Although the long-term goal is to make ethanol from nonfood, cellulosic biomass, “corn will stay around and its use will grow,” says Biondi. It is predicted that the current 7 billion gallon annual production rate of ethanol from corn will grow to 15 billion gallons by 2015.
The company’s first product, named CornBuster™, will improve the yield of ethanol from corn by 3%. At a typical drymill corn-to-ethanol manufacturing facility that makes 50,000-gallon batches, CornBuster will boost the annual production from 1 million to 1.5 million gallons while starting with the same amount of corn, according to Biondi. C5-6 Technologies is conducting the final pilot-plant trials of CornBuster and completing the regulatory process, as well as raising A-round venture capital.
Also in the pipeline is SoyBuster™, which contains thermostable enzymes that convert low-value carbohydrates in soy meal into ethanol, while concentrating soy’s protein, increasing its value. The enzymes discovered by the company will replace expensive and harsh chemical methods presently employed to disrupt recalcitrant cellulose in biomass.
Novel ideas for degrading biomass are exploding, and it is not clear which technologies will win out. It is clear that “the current paradigm of using fungal enzymes is not cutting it in the real world,” says Dr. Mead. Such enzymatic approaches are not economically feasible because they take too long to work. “The company that finds blends of enzymes with higher specific activities to process biomass rapidly and cheaply will win out,” he says.