ExxonMobil Makes $600 Million Bet on Biofuels—And Synthetic Genomics

J. Craig Venter, the maverick co-founder of San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics, has been hinting that the company had a huge funding announcement in the works—and tonight The New York Times has the story on its website.

The newspaper says ExxonMobil has laid plans to invest $600 million or more in the development of renewable, algae-derived biofuels through a partnership the oil giant has struck with Synthetic Genomics, whose co-founders include Juan Enriquez, a managing director of Excel Venture Management, one of the startup’s backers. The Times account quotes Venter and Emil Jacobs, an ExxonMobil vice president for research and development. ExxonMobil told the Times it plans to spend $300 million internally on biofuels research and development and make an equivalent investment, or “potentially more,” in Synthetic Genomics’ own research and development—providing the San Diego startup meets certain milestones.

Heather Kowalski, Synthetic Genomics’ spokeswoman (and close Venter confidante), also notified me by e-mail that the company has arranged a teleconference this morning to formally announce the initiative.

The news represents a coup for San Diego’s emerging renewable energy industry, which includes Sapphire Energy, another algae-based biofuels startup that has raised at least $100 million in venture funding from Bill Gates’s Cascade Investment, Arch Venture Partners, Venrock, and Wellcome Trust.

Venter told the Times that ExxonMobil’s involvement represents a key element in bringing large-scale industrial capabilities to the biofuels industry, which remains focused primarily on solving the problems of technology innovation rather than those of commercial production. San Diego’s prominence as a center of expertise and as an incubator of new biofuels technologies prompted UC San Diego and other institutions to announce in April they had formed SD-CAB, the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.

Venter hinted about a forthcoming major announcement in April, when he made a presentation at an “innovation summit” organized by San Diego’s Connect, the local non-profit group that supports technology innovation and entrepreneurship. Renewed talk several weeks later prompted our follow-up on Synthetic Genomics’ capabilities.

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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