Xconomy Q&A: Triton Algae Innovations Co-founder Stephen Mayfield

Xconomy San Diego — 

[Corrected 9/7/13, 3:40 pm. See below.] San Diego’s Triton Algae Innovation’s scientific co-founder Stephen Mayfield was in Japan when the year-old synthetic biology startup disclosed that it had closed on $5 million in Series A funding from Heliae Technology Holdings. From the other side of the world, Mayfield responded to an e-mail I had sent with questions about Triton, and his answers provide some additional insights to the company and its technology.

As I reported yesterday, Triton has been developing technology that makes it easier to genetically engineer algae to produce “high value” proteins. The company says it already can direct algae to produce complex proteins, enzymes, and other biologics that are cost-effective and can be immediately used in agricultural, pharmaceutical, and other retail markets.

Mayfield, who also was a scientific co-founder of the San Diego algae biofuel company Sapphire Energy, is a professor of molecular biology at UC San Diego and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology (SD-CAB). In an interview with Xconomy a few years ago, he explained that algae are ideal organisms for producing biotech drugs because they are relatively easy to grow, especially in comparison to other organisms like bacteria, yeast, and mammalian cells that are used to make many biotechnology drugs.

Xconomy: When was Triton Algae founded? How was it initially capitalized? I have never heard of Heliae Technology Holdings. Where is it based? Does it specialize in industrial biotech investments?

Stephen Mayfield: Triton was formed in early 2013 and funded in April of this year. Heliae is an algal production company based in Phoenix [AZ]. Heliae specializes in all things algae, but focuses on the production side [while] Triton focuses on the genetic engineering side.

X: Is Triton the spin out of Rincon Pharmaceuticals technology from Sapphire that you discussed with Xconomy in 2009?

[Corrected with revised statement here and below from Daniel Sachs, a Triton co-founder who is director of finance and business development.]

Daniel Sachs: Triton is not technically a spinout.  However, Triton is taking a similar approach to that of Rincon—using algae to produce high value proteins.  Rincon had great technology but lacked the right product.  Triton has a strong first product already developed (our Mammary Associated Amyloid MAA-algae product called PhycoShield).  This is combined with an incredibly strong management team led by Jason Pyle.

X: In that 2009 interview with Xconomy, you said algae are ideal organisms for producing biotech drugs “because they don’t need all the pampering other organisms require.” Can you describe that advantage a bit more? What has changed in the past four years?

DS: Two things changed. First, the technology and tools improved significantly over the last five years based on the investment that the DOE, DARPA, and USDA made in algae biotechnology. Those investments were made mainly for biofuels production, but the therapeutics are a significant side benefit of those investments. Second, the community has finally realized what we discovered years ago at Rincon and before — that photosynthetic production (as in algae) is a much more efficient and scalable system than production by fermentation (as in bacteria or yeast). Algae genomic engineering technology simply had not been advanced enough in the past for the groups focused on bacteria and yeast to see the benefits.  Now, however, our engineering capabilities are so advanced that algae is finally on par, if not beyond, the bacteria and yeast platforms.  We can make compounds in algae that are more sophisticated than what can be made in bacteria, and cheaper and more scalable than what can be made in yeast. The platform is primed,  and now we are about to start shipping real products. We’ll have these out by next year, not five years from now.