Following the Money
James Collins, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator told GEN that alternative fuels has become the “killer app” for synthetic biology. The good news was that they brought attention to the field and a lot of funding into it. The bad news was that biofuels detracted the focus from other fields like new therapeutics development. “In my view, the amount of money thrown at alternative fuels resulted in recruitment of a majority of talented scientists into bioenergy at a critical time for the field.”
Amyris was founded in 2003 and has since raised more than $244 million in private funding including $138.6 million on June 23, 2010. Its first CEO, John G. Melo, was previously president of U.S. fuels for BP. The firm says that it has about six corporate partnerships including one that resulted in an affiliate of French oil and gas giant Total SA becoming its largest stockholder.
SGI was founded in 2005 by J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., Hamilton Smith, M.D., who shared the Nobel Prize in 1978 for physiology or medicine, Juan Enriquez, and David Kiernan. In 2007, BP reportedly made a substantial equity investment in the company as part of a R&D deal. Synthetic Genomics was to study the gene sequences of microbes that live within hydrocarbons and develop biological conversion processes that could lead to cleaner energy production and improved recovery rates. In retrospect, the deal should have focused on oil-eating, not fuel-making, microbes.
Exxon Mobil made its first major investment in greenhouse gas reducing biofuels in 2009 via a $600 million partnership also with Synthetic Genomics to develop transportation fuels from algae. And technology companies wanting broader franchises in synthetic biology have been putting money into SGI, the latest being Life Technologies. On June 2, Life Technologies said that it had made an equity investment in SGI.
About two months before inking the deal with SGI, Life Technologies purchased about 59% of Germany’s Geneart, which concentrates on DNA engineering and processing. It provides custom gene-synthesis and gene-optimization services to its customers. Life Technologies now owns a 74% stake in that company.
The SGI investment, in particular, extends Life Technologies footprint beyond tools and services to the basic science behind creating synthetic life forms. Peter Dansky, Life Technologies’ president of molecular biology systems, told GEN that the move reflects the company’s openness to expanding its business model. “It’s pretty unlikely we’ll be setting up biofuel pumps, but we think there are significant evolving spaces for applications that we can play in.
“We’ve typically been a research tool oriented company, so why are we making investments beyond the tool stage? First of all, our roots are in research but our mission is to apply life sciences to improve human conditions. An example of this in the medical world is molecular diagnostics. Our tools are increasingly applied in molecular diagnostics, and we think this analogy holds in synthetic biology.”
Dansky noted that the firm’s investment in SGI speaks to where Life Technologies believes there’s an opportunity. “Our interest is being on the leading edge and in touch with thought leaders. It’s not about their business model.”