Genomatica Brewing a Green Revolution for the Petrochemical Industry

It is hard to decide what to say first about San Diego’s Genomatica.

Is it more amazing that Genomatica has genetically engineered microbes to produce mass quantities of butanediol, a hydrocarbon widely used by the petrochemical industry to make plastics, solvents, pharmaceuticals, textiles and automotive components?

Or is it more impressive that the laboratory researchers who successfully inserted genes that converted ordinary E. coli bacteria into butanediol-making factories were following a blueprint generated by Genomatica’s proprietary software?

By combining its computational capabilities with its ability to engineer microrganisms Genomatica says it has developed a systematic and integrated method for taking the petroleum part out of the petrochemical business.

“What we’re trying to do is replace chemical industry feedstocks, but in a sustainable and renewable-technology fashion,” says Genomatica CEO Chris Gann.

The computational technology now known as SimPheny was the basis for launching Genomatica more than eight years ago, says Christophe Schilling, who developed the program with Bernhard Palsson, a professor of bioengineering at UC San Diego.

“I was writing my PhD thesis and a business plan at the same time,” says Schilling, who is now Genomatica’s 34-year-old president. He got his doctoral degree in bioengineering the same year he and Palsson founded the company.

Their initial funding of $3.5 million came from an angel group in Iceland, and Schilling says the company also benefitted from about $13 million in government and industry research grants.

Genomatica at first described its strategy in sweeping terms: “to advance the understanding of cells to facilitate drug discovery; accurate and efficient disease definition and processing of therapeutic targets; enhanced cellular engineering for bioprocessing and chemical production…”

The company hasn’t really changed course. But in 2006, Schilling says, “we committed ourselves to focus on the chemicals opportunity” by adding the experimental lab, and showing the technology can be used to engineer organisms to produce useful molecules in innovative ways. As the appeal of its sustainable “cleantech” approach became clear, Genomatica also decided to add “process engineering” as a key capability needed to improve yields.

With that, Genomatica put together a revised business plan in late 2006. By mid-2007, the company had financed that business plan with $20 million of new capital from Mohr Davidow Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Alloy Ventures. The company now has about 40 employees.

Genomatica’s core computational technology enables it to create a computerized model that simulates the myriad metabolic processes of a cell. It also enables Schilling’s team to determine the best series of metabolic processes—or pathway—for directing the cell to produce a particular compound.

Schilling compares their optimization approach to Mapquest, saying the same underlying computational technology is used to chart the most direct route between two points.

“What we’re able to do is take this modeling technology that we have here and ask … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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