“Deliver Better Overall Economics than Existing Process Technologies”

Dr Christophe Schilling,
CEO, Genomatica
Over dependence on fossil fuels is most likely to hamper the chemical industry where most processes are petroleum based. Providing the much needed solutions and being a widely-recognised technology leader, Genomatica has been developing novel manufacturing processes which allow its partners to produce the most extensively used chemicals in the world using alternative feedstock cost effectively and ensuring sustainability. In an email interaction with CEW, Dr Christophe Schilling, CEO, Genomatica, shares details on the company’s focus on innovation, its recently announced ‘nylon intermediates program’ and partnering with the likes of BASF, Novamont and more.

Please apprise us of Genomatica’s performance in the last 5 years and share your thoughts on the future of bio-based chemicals market globally.
Genomatica has delivered well on both technology and commercial milestones. Genomatica develops process technology for the production of the world’s most widely-used chemicals – chemicals like butanediol (BDO), butadiene, and nylon intermediates (HMD, CPL, ADA). Our processes harness biotechnology – using microorganisms that we purpose-engineer – to convert alternative feedstocks (such as various sugars) into the desired chemical. They aim to deliver better overall economics than existing process technologies and greater sustainability.

To do this, we first invested in our proprietary integrated biotechnology platform. Our platform lets us develop great process technologies more rapidly. Our platform combines computational modelling, experimental biotechnology, and process engineering capabilities.

Using our platform, we commercialised our first process, for BDO, in less than five years – a standout achievement in the industry. Our process has produced thousands of tons of product, been licensed by BASF and Novamont, and validated by many major firms. We are well along in our second process, for butadiene, which has gained USD 100 million in industry support, along with Braskem and ENI Versalis as partners. And we confirmed that our third program, for nylon intermediates, is well underway. Along with our platform, we have built a large body of intellectual property, which includes over 500 patents and applications.

Our commercial milestones include the many large firms that have signed major agreements with us, and the products that are now making their way to end-customers based on chemicals made with our processes. We also have been honoured with some of the industry’s most notable awards, recognising our technology, innovation, milestones and potential for positive impact.

Regarding the future of the industry, this is something we track closely. Through our many discussions with firms throughout the industry and also through a unique ongoing program we have run with ICIS, one of the world’s leading chemical and energy market information providers. The most recent survey results which were announced in September attracted almost 1,000 responses from firms worldwide and was one of the most extensive industry surveys to date. The results highlighted the continuing and strengthening interest in and movement toward greater sustainability in the mainstream chemical industry. Additional details on this survey can be found in Genomatica’s release, Sustainability Takes Firmer Hold in Mainstream Chemical Industry.

The industry is more focused on R&D today; does Genomatica focus on innovation for its growth? Please elaborate on how much the company invests into research.
Absolutely. In fact, we describe our headquarters as our ‘Innovation Center’. A large majority of all Genomatica spending is allocated to R&D, including amounts received from our large partners as sponsors of select R&D programs. We speak regularly at conferences to share our work to advance the field, both in the underlying science and in the pragmatic work of scale-up, and delivery of processes that work in world-scale plants. More information on this is available on Genomatica’s website under the news section where the September 10, 2014 press release describes – with numbers – how continued innovation in our underlying biotechnology platform has allowed us to further accelerate our process development work.

Please tell us a bit more in detail about the recently announced ‘nylon intermediates program.’
We have been working on nylon intermediates for a while now – and it is a natural target for our capabilities. The processes that we are developing aim to solve some real problems in the mainstream chemical industry, including addressing price volatility and limited supply sources of some current raw materials, and avoiding unwanted byproducts and waste streams.

How did the adoption of Genomatica’s ‘integrated biotechnology platform’ change the outlook for the company?
Our platform is a unique and distinctive advantage for Genomatica – and by extension, for our partners. It lets us more rapidly design and develop optimised process technologies, which means that we can get to market faster, and our customers can offer ‘better’, more sustainable versions of chemicals they may already sell, that much sooner.

Recently, Genomatica was announced as the winners of 2014 Bioeconomy Leadership Award and green chemistry has become a buzzword today. Are there any other avenues besides butadiene and nylon intermediates that the company is looking at?
Yes, and the 2015 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer Award, too! Our technology – and our intellectual property – allows us to target many of the world’s most widely-used chemicals. We believe each of our first three lines of business represents a sizable opportunity which we are well-positioned to address. We will certainly be adding processes for more target chemicals, often in concert with and supported by major value chain partners with commercialisation intent.

Could you please shed some light on the vision behind developing manufacturing processes which enable license partners to produce chemicals from alternative feedstock?
Two ideas are represented here. We believe that allowing the chemical industry to harness ‘alternative’ feedstocks gives them important optionality. It can improve sustainability; allow for a differentiated and potentially more valuable and profitable offering; while also hedging against volatility in the oil and gas markets, both in supply and price. This is particularly true for those chemicals – including C4s like butadiene – that are primarily made as ‘byproducts’ at crackers; the switch to lighter feedstocks in many parts of the world can have large impact on entire value chains, and Genomatica’s on-purpose processes protect against that.

Regarding enabling our licensees, that means that we are focused on supporting our partners, rather than competing with them. They know their markets, their applications, their customers; they know how to build and run plants. We can supply them with advantageous technology and they get to use it for competitive advantage. We both win.

Genomatica has partnered with the big-wigs of the global industry viz. BASF, Novamont, Versalis, Braskem. Does the company plan to expand its reach through a partnership model alone?
Partnerships are our focus, and we aim to be the ‘biotechnology partner of choice’ to the chemical industry. The centre of excellence and innovation. The company to turn to when major firms are looking to better understand how and where they can best apply what biotechnology is good at, with respect to chemical production – and the company they know they can trust and which has a track record of delivering.

What has been the company’s approach in adopting new technology? What has been Genomatica’s experience like in India?
We are always looking for how we can best incorporate and apply new technology and ideas.

Regarding India: we think there are great opportunities and we invite partnering discussions. We believe that our process technologies can be used by producers to offer differentiated, more sustainable products; and by users of chemicals that want to back-integrate, and have assured supply, especially if current basic and intermediate ingredients they use are primarily supplied from other countries.

There has been a big hue and cry about abolishing intellectual property (IP) rights for the global manufacturing sector to progress together. Can you please share your thoughts on this as Genomatica has a number of patents to its name?
We have invested a very large amount of time and money to develop our intellectual property. By working with major firms that license our technology, they secure the rights needed to use that technology and they profit from it. The revenues that we earn this way help fund additional innovations that we all benefit from in following years.