In August, Amyris Biotechnologies announced its collaboration with strange eyeby Jonathan Van Ness on a new hair care line. As for tech announcements, these weren’t likely to hit too many radars, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. But what is remarkable in the story, and not mentioned in the press release, is that 20 years ago Amyris Biotechnologies was not a cosmetics company, but a startup hailed as the avant-garde. of a biofuels revolution.
Amyris is not alone in this change either; Solazyme, Lanzatech, Neste, LiveFuels, LS9 and Pacific Biodiesel are all biofuel companies that also got their start in the early years and have since expanded into cosmetics, perfumes and household cleaning products. From the outside, this change can seem quite bizarre. But I worked at Amyris (although I don’t have any connection to it anymore), and I can see how much this change makes sense. The change offers a surprising example of how the high-profile new technology industry can transform over time.
To understand this dramatic shift, it helps to know why there were so many of these companies in the early 2000s. Biofuels, as defined by the Department of Energy, are any type of plant mass converted into a liquid fuel. for transportation needs. Some of the first waves of biofuel development in the United States took place in the 1970s, a product, in part, of the decade’s oil crisis. Research experimented with using the plentiful supply of U.S. corn as a feedstock to produce ethanol for fuel, but the projects never produced the kinds of yields needed to make a significant dent in it. oil and gas industry. Interest faded and then rekindled in the early 2000s, thanks to the war in Iraq and stronger climate change alarm bells. Government grants became available for research into alternative energy sources, just as the field of biotechnology was making significant technological advancements. In particular, DNA sequencing tools have seen major breakthroughs, exponentially facilitating the genetic manipulation of the sequences of living things for productive purposes. For biofuels, this meant the possibility of using genetic modifications to overload the feedstock or microbes involved in fuel production.
Laboratories and start-ups have started to spring up to develop new generation biofuels using this genetic engineering. It’s the kind of thing that sits well in a Wired magazine and looks cool, smart, and stylish (or at least did it to me as a 23 year old looking for a job in France). outside college), but it also begins with the foundation of an almost impossible premise. These companies were created to do expensive research and development to try to coax a living thing into making fuel for less money than tapping existing oil from the ground. They were trying to make something as cheap as oil, something so deeply rooted in the economy because of how cheap it was.
The people who ran the ship of these companies knew they were betting on bad odds. Amyris was founded in 2003 as part of this cohort, and its origin story included renowned venture capitalist Vinod Khosla urging its founders this way: “Set your sights on diesel. It’s the hardest thing you would want to do, but it’s the biggest market out there, and you’re going to build an amazing business.
Fire wall In fact, almost all of these companies encountered considerable financial and technical difficulties. Making fuel from bioengineered microbes, at a technical level, seemed possible; Making them competitive on a large scale and competitively priced was another story. In 2010, in a well-publicized stumble, Amyris CEO John Melo promised investors that by 2011 the company would produce 6-9 million liters of its fuel, farnesene, each year, and 40 to 60 million by 2012. These numbers would have been virtually inconsequential to the oil and gas industry, from which Melo was chosen. But they were also totally unrealistic for biotech, and the company was ultimately only able to deliver a million liters in 2011. Almost every other company has experienced less dramatic versions of the same: unable to achieve highs. already modest production targets. Many – perhaps most – of these start-ups have gone completely bankrupt: Range Fuels, Sapphire Energy, Coskata, KiOR and Beta Renewables have all been celebrated and have all closed their doors. Companies trying to avoid collapse had to come up with a new strategy and come up with it quickly.
The most successful rehabilitations began with the recognition that fuel produced by bioengineered microbes was closely related to several other chemicals that were much more expensive. Genetic engineering may not have the power to produce hundreds of millions of liters of product per year, but it had the finesse to modify the fuels in other products. This made it possible to start with an already developed commodity chemical and turn it into something relevant for several different industries. Amyris and Solazyme at different times have researched industrial lubricants, rubber replacements, plastic additives, feed additives, nutritional supplements and fish feed. Gevo, Enerkem, Neste, Virent Energy, LS9 and Cobalt Technologies are just a few of the other biofuel companies that have variously exploited rubber, plastics, chemicals, textiles, paints, adhesives, solvents and detergent ingredients. This change was widespread enough in the industry that the annual hype list of Biofuels Digest, the 50 Hottest Bioenergy Companies, by 2012 was extended to the clumsiest, hottest bio-based chemicals and renewables, and in 2017, the even more nebula Hottest in Advanced Bioeconomics. In a sense, companies diversified their sources of revenue; in another, they threw spaghetti at the wall.
These types of activities were initially positioned more as detours – businesses to pay the bills while pursuing biofuels on a more realistic, long-term schedule. But the more time passed, the more biofuels disappeared. To a certain extent, this flexibility has always been part of the strategy. Amyris, for example, got its start in a university lab making artemisinin, an antimalarial drug, before switching to biofuels. But the focus on building a platform for bioengineering, along with agnosticism towards products brought to market, appears to have increased over time. Today, most of the still existing biofuel companies have more firmly established themselves in their new niches. For some companies, such as Gevo and Neste, this niche is that of petrochemical replacements; other companies, such as Amyris, Lanzatech and Solazyme (before filing for bankruptcy in 2017), have taken official steps to rebrand themselves as players in the cosmetics industry.
The transition was disappointing for me as a lab technician willing to work for less pay in a start-up with “meaningful” work compared to a comparable job in a large pharmaceutical company. I’ve watched the industry go from creating something that is supposed to be groundbreaking and mission-driven to things that are a bit scattered and, in all fairness, boring. Again, that made sense: after developing a certain type of technology for at least 10 years, you might as well be using it for something, and there’s worse in the world to do than a pretty good moisturizer. These companies continue to focus above all on respecting the environment of their brand (saving sharks, replacing palm oil, reducing carbon emissions) – although there is a whole cohort of anti -OGM in order to demystify their claims to a net environmental or social good.
If the world needed further proof that substituting one type of extractive logic for another isn’t likely to solve our environmental problems, this is it. But it’s also worth noting the underlying logic on which these bad odds continue to play: take the moon shot. Few months ago, Freakonomics had an episode in which Vinod Khosla dispensed essentially the same advice he gave to the founders of Amyris 20 years ago: “Go get the moon”. He argued that when you dream big, even if you miss, you will always land further than if you had covered your bets and played it safe.
The long arc of early biofuels is instructive on how you might be less likely to land among the stars than in the shampoo manufacturing industry. By stretching towards something very out of reach – cheaper oil than cheap oil – companies stumbled and had to fight for a safe bet to get things done. The safest bets were often the conservative industries: cosmetics, industrial lubricants, plastics. In the various reflections and course corrections to the current big tech calculation, it should be remembered that moonlighting, rather than relaunching the revolution, can prepare industries for reactive feedback on proven ways of making profits.
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.