San Diego, CA, March 14, 2017 -- Pull on a wetsuit, and you’re wearing an engineered marvel created mostly from petroleum-based chemicals. But San Diego-based company Genomatica—co-founded by UC San Diego bioengineering alumnus Christophe Schilling—sees a different future. At Genomatica, the snap of your surfing gear and thousands of other everyday products will increasingly start with chemicals that have been produced more sustainably, by microorganisms that consume renewable feedstocks, rather than crude oil or natural gas.
One of the chemicals Genomatica is decoupling from fossil fuels, at an industrial scale, is BDO (1,4-butanediol). BDO is a widely used chemical essential in the manufacture of thousands of products from plastic packaging to coffee capsules to automotive parts. Genomatica’s manufacturing process, licensed to companies including chemical giant BASF and bioplastics leader Novamont, uses in-house computational modeling and genetic engineering capabilities to design E. coli bacteria that produce BDO out of renewable feedstocks such as sugar. The end product is cleaner, more cost-effective to manufacture and performs exactly the same as BDO made from fossil fuels.
|Using Genomatica’s GENO BDO™ technology, for example, the company Novamont opened the world’s first commercial-scale facility for the bio-based production of BDO.|
Removing fossil fuels from the production of key industrial chemicals is of great interest to companies around the world that are facing growing demands from their customers to provide more sustainable products, said Schilling, who received his Ph.D. in bioengineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering in 2000. “The big companies in the mainstream chemical industry know the end applications of these products and they know the market. Being able to offer them the ability to sell their customers a renewable version of the same chemical, that’s very attractive to them.”
“Our model is to be the biotechnology partner to the chemical industry,” Schilling explained. “We’re an enabler of change, to empower chemical companies with new technology and to make the same exact products they make today, but with better economics and greater sustainability.”
Using Genomatica’s GENO BDO™ technology, for example, the company Novamont opened the world’s first commercial-scale facility for the bio-based production of BDO. The plant is built to produce 30,000 tons of BDO per year to make bioplastic products, such as fruit and vegetable bags, coffee capsules and mulch film. The products made with bio-based BDO are expected to produce approximately 56 percent less greenhouse gas emissions compared to products made with conventional BDO. The plant in the Venice region of Italy is up and running now. Read more. (PDF)
Also in 2016, Genomatica partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks to more rapidly deliver biology-based solutions for the world’s highest-volume intermediate and specialty chemicals that are at the heart of the mainstream industry. Read more. (PDF)
Genomatica is also partnering with companies, including Versalis, to develop industrial-scale production of bio-butadiene (bio-BDE) from fully renewable feedstock. Butadiene is a key component of tires and latex, and the partners have already announced production of samples of bio-rubber made with their bio-BDE. Read more. (PDF)
Genomatica’s success have earned them many awards, including the 2015 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer award; the 2013 Kirkpatrick Chemical Engineering Achievement Award, which recognizes the most noteworthy chemical engineering technology commercialized globally in the prior two years; and the 2011 EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award.
UC San Diego Startup
Schilling launched Genomatica in 1998 with bioengineering professor Bernhard Palsson, and the company’s platform technology stems from some of the research Schilling did in Palsson’s lab. Early in Schilling’s graduate career, Palsson asked him what he wanted to get out of graduate school. “He thought about it for two days,” Palsson recalled, “and came back to me and said that number one, ‘I want to do fundamentally important research, and number two, I want to start a company with you.’”
Their original focus was a business that would pioneer the use of computational modeling for single-cell organisms in life science applications. But the company saw an opportunity in 2007 “where our technology could enable and unlock a very large opportunity in the chemical industry,” Schilling said, “and that was compelling for us to pursue.”
The $3 trillion chemical industry “operates almost entirely based on petrochemical feedstocks today. About 8 to 10 percent of the world’s oil goes into chemical production,” Palsson said in a 2014 interview. With Genomatica’s successes, he added, manufacturers “are now seriously looking at switching to bio-based feedstocks. That is a huge change in industry.”
Harish Nagarajan, a 2012 bioinformatics and systems biology Ph.D. graduate from Palsson’s lab who now works as a senior research scientist at Genomatica, said this shift toward sustainable chemicals was part of what drew him to the company. Nagarajan is one of well over 20 UC San Diego graduates who have joined the company.
Genomatica won The Scientist’s “Best Place to Work in Industry” award in 2012 and 2013, and Nagarajan and others say the collaborative and innovative atmosphere is one of the best they’ve experienced.
Ishmael Sonico, a 1991 UC San Diego chemical engineering and economics graduate, is a senior process engineer at Genomatica. He especially admires the company’s core values, including: “We are relentless” and “We are united.” From his first days on the job, he said, “I noticed that when someone had an issue, everyone attacked it, as a group...and within hours, not days or weeks, the problem was solved.”
Schilling is looking beyond specific products to having a lasting impact on the chemical industry. “We want to say we helped plant the seeds of change,” he said, “so in 10 or 15 years we’ll see an already-innovative industry deliver products made in a better way, helping make the products all around us be more sustainable.”
Entrepreneurship training at the Jacobs School of Engineering
The successes and impact of Genomatica capture all three tenets of the mission of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering: Educate Tomorrow's Technology Leaders; Conduct Leading Edge Research and Drive Innovation; and Transfer Discoveries for the Benefit of Society.
To further this mission, in 2016, the Jacobs School of Engineering, in partnership with the Rady School of Management, launched the Institute for the Global Entrepreneur. The Institute encompasses a series of programs, centers and initiatives all working toward a common goal: preparing engineers to become change makers and technical leaders who drive innovation within organizations both large and small. For example, more than 100 students receive entrepreneurship training each year through the Institute’s technology and business accelerators, including the new IGE Technology Accelerator.