Amyris Raises $85 Million in IPO

Emeryville, CA-based Amyris Biotechnologies is unusual in several respects. One of the synthetic biology company’s first big projects, back in 2005, was a non-profit venture with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to engineer microbes to produce artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug. (It handed off that work to pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi-Aventis in 2008.) Then the company turned its attention to synthetic fuels, and this week it became one of the first advanced biofuels company to go public. Amyris’s stock, trading under the ticker symbol AMRS, debuted on the NASDAQ exchange yesterday, bringing in $85 million in new capital.

Co-founded by UC Berkeley bioengineer Jay Keasling, Amyris found early on that by tweaking the genes of yeast cells, it could cause the microorganisms to produce large quantities of an artemisinin precursor. It’s developed that same approach into what it calls an “industrial synthetic biology platform,” focused on a pathway in yeast metabolism that produces terpenoids, which can be processed into many different drugs, specialty chemicals, and fuels.

The company says it creates and tests thousands of yeast strains every day to find those that produce target molecules most efficiently; these strains convert sugar sources such as sugarcane to intermediary molecules in large fermentation tanks. The company’s initial products are all derivatives of a terpenoid called trans-beta-farnesene (Biofene), which it hopes to convert into renewable substitutes for petroleum-based fuels like diesel and jet fuel, and eventually into other chemicals such as lubricants and surfactants and even cosmetics and fragrances.

There’s a lot of money riding on those hopes—as there is on competing biofuels companies like Bio Architecture Lab, Joule Unlimited, LS9, Sapphire Energy, and Synthetic Genomics. Prior to its IPO, Amyris had raised a stunning $244 million from a long list of backers including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Khosla Ventures, TPG Biotechnology Partners, Votorantim Novos Negocios, Advanced Equities, DAG Ventures, Grupo Cornélio Brennand, Naxos UK, The Westly Group, Stratus Group, and French oil giant Total SA.

In trading yesterday, Amyris shares climbed to about $16.50, or 3 percent above their initial price of $16. As of 11:00 Eastern time today, the stock had reached $16.62.

Amyris has pilot plants in Emeryville and in Campinas, Brazil, where it hopes to use the country’s abundant sugarcane crop to reduce diesel fuel consumption by public buses in cities like Sao Paulo. The company said in its S-1 registration statement for the initial public offering that it expects to begin commercial production of biofuels in 2011 through contract manufacturers, and that its own industrial-scale plant in Brazil will be up and running by mid-2012. Through agreements with major Brazilian sugarcane producers such as Bunge Limited, Amyris says it has access to 10 million tons of sugarcane annually.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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