Great (Algae) Expectations, and San Diego’s Plans for Creating a Big Green Cluster

Expectations were high at UC San Diego yesterday as the city’s academic, business, and political leaders gathered to announce the formation of SD-CAB, the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.

Steve Kay, UCSD’s dean of biological sciences and SD-CAB’s founding director, told the audience the single point of the center was to position San Diego as “the leader in the new algae economy.” Such hyperbole aside, the underlying idea for the consortium of academic and industry researchers was basically how Kay described it in January, when I first learned about SD-CAB. Since then, organizers have added the Salk Institute and San Diego State University to the consortium, which intends to make San Diego a nationally recognized center for the kind of innovative solutions needed to make algae biofuels production commercially viable.

One difference that was evident yesterday, though, is that expectations have soared beyond making San Diego what UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox calls “a big green cluster” for algae biotechnology research. Some speakers talked about making San Diego a “green Houston” of the biofuels industry. “Maybe someday, if the history of algae is ever written, this will be remembered as the day when it all started,” Jim Waring, chairman of Cleantech San Diego, told me before the press conference began.

Joining in the exuberance, Stephen Mayfield, an expert in the genetics of algae at The Scripps Research Institute, told the audience that algae-based biofuels, which includes gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel, “will be under $2 a gallon” in the next five to 10 years. Who knows if Mayfield is right? But with his enthusiasm and scientific credentials, Mayfield had people listening raptly. In addition to serving as SD-CAB’s co-founder and associate director, Mayfield also is a scientific adviser and co-founder of Sapphire Energy, the algae biofuels startup funded in part by Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment fund.

And perhaps there is cause to celebrate. Biofuels Digest says venture capital firms invested $175.9 million in to develop algae-based biofuels throughout the United States last year, and $100-million of that went to Sapphire Energy. Panelists at the press conference also cited a San Diego regional economic study that found every $100 million of venture capital funding applied … 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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