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Corporate-Academic Web Entangles UC-BP Proposal

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 23, 2007

At least two leading proponents of the $500 million alternative fuels program now being negotiated between UC Berkeley and BP (the former British Petroleum) have created companies that could profit from the research. 

One of the firms hired a BP vice president while the oil company was considering rival grant applications from five universities, including Berkeley. 

Specifics of the final contract are now being negotiated between UC Berkeley and BP. The university will negotiate subcontracts with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and the University of Illinois at Cham-paign-Urbana (UI). 

The result will be the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), which will house two separate programs—academic research conducted by the lab and the two universities and a restricted proprietary section for BP-only research. 

The increasingly short path between academe and board room has been encouraged by Congress, most notably in the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which played a leading role in the creation of what former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl dubbed the “emergence of a substantial ‘university-industrial complex.’” 



One of the faculty-founded companies, Amyris Biotechno-logies, was co-created by Jay Keasling, one of the project’s highest-profile advocates. 

Amyris hired John Melos, BP’s former president of U.S. fuels operations, as its CEO in December, while the oil company was evaluating competing proposals from five universities including Berkeley. 

Announcement of the Melos hire came two months after UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory (LBNL) had applied for a $500 million alternative energy grant from BP and two months before the company declared Berkeley the winner. 

Keasling, a professor of biological and chemical engineering at the university, also holds an appointment at LBNL and is an internationally renowned scholar; he was named “Scientist of the Year” in December by Discover Magazine. 

The Amyris website states that among the former BP executive’s task for the British oil giant was “BP’s Helios rebranding”—when the firm changed its name to BP and adopted a new logo dubbed “the Helios.” 

According to the BP corporate website, the logo “was inspired by the image of a sunflower: a living organic form, reflecting our commitment to more environmental ways of producing energy. Named after the Greek god of the sun, the Helios combines the imagery of petals and leaves with a burst of radiant yellow that reminds us of the greatest energy source of all.” 

LBNL’s own alternative energy program is dubbed “the Helios Project,” and will include the BP-funded research. Keasling is the project’s co-director and has been designated as the director of the EBI’s Synthetic Biology Center  

Amyris has been widely praised for the key role the company has played in the synthesis of the highly effective anti-malarial drug artemisinin, which is now produced in a cheap, effective manner by the use of the common bacterium Escherichia coli in a genetically modified form, a process funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Another member of the Amyris advisory board is Harvey Blanch, a professor of biochemical engineering at UC Berkeley who also holds an appointment at LBNL and is the designated lead investigator for the EBI’s Feedstock Pretreatment Laboratory. 


Somerville companies 

Another Helios Project scientist with a direct financial stake in alternative fuel science is Chris Somerville, co-founder of LS-9, Inc., which has as its trademarked slogan, “the renewable petroleum company.” 

Somerville holds appointments at LBNL, Stanford and the Carnegie Institution, and is the designated chief of staff of the Energy Biosciences Institute, the organizational umbrella for all of the research conducted under the BP grant, which includes both academic research and proprietary research conducted by BP scientists. 

Somerville was also chief executive officer and chairman of the board of a second firm, Hayward-based Mendel Biotechnology, which is developing genetically modified crops under a contract with Monsanto, the agro-chemical transnational giant. 

He resigned as CEO earlier this year but remains as chairman of the board of directors and also serves on the company’s advisory board, according to the company’s website. 

A Monsanto vice president, Steve Padgette, serves on board of directors. 

One of the crops under development at Mendel is miscanthus, a giant grass related to sugar cane which has been featured as the probable target source of “biomass” for the creation of synthetic fuels, particularly ethanol. The plant is the species most frequently mentioned in the BP grant proposal as a source of fuel derived from cellulose. 

The plant is a native of China, where Mendel has a research program on the plant currently underway. 

Brian Staskawitz, another Berkeley professor named in the BP grant proposal, also serves on two Mendel boards, as both a director and an advisor, and Stephen P. Long, a University of Illinois plant biologist who figures prominently in the BP grant proposal, also serves on Mendel’s advisory board. 

Long is designated at the lead investigator for operations at the Feedstock Production Laboratory, which will be located in Illinois, and he, Keasling and Somerville are the three designated Faculty Scientists for the EBI project. 

According to the proposal accepted by BP, the trio “will work with BP and university leadership to develop the scientific program and establish priorities for the near term.” Other responsibilities include assisting in formulation of the research program and management plans and planning the allocation of space and resources under priorities established by university and LBNL administrators.  


Issue raised 

The issue of potential conflicts of interest was raised earlier this week during a campus forum where Keasling, Somerville and other key figures in the BP-funded project talked of the goals and fielded questions. 

Asked about possible conflicts with his role at Mendel, Somerville said that “if I assume a role at EBI, Berkeley will make sure” no conflicts of interests are permitted. “If necessary, I will separate myself from the several companies I’m associated with.” 

The same question was not posed to Keasling. 

A few minutes later, Somerville said EBI would be holding “lots of workshops for people from biotech in the area,” especially investors, which “I hope will lead to a lot of startups,” new companies created to license and exploit patents derived from research by the university and LBNL. 

While BP will have the first right of refusal on patents arising from research it funds, Somerville said the oil company favors licensing technology to startups. “They see that as enabling the development of infrastructure and a base for the biofuel industry.” 

The $500 million grant, to be divided up over the course of 10 years, will comprise the single largest source of non-government funding at the university, and has drawn criticism from some faculty and students who charge that administrators failed to heed the lessons learned from controversy generated by the last grant to drawn in such a wide range of faculty. 

The furor over a 1998-2003 contract between the Plant and Molecular Biology Division of the College of Natural Resources and Swiss agricultural chemical and pharmaceutical company Novartis ultimately led the university to commission a study by social scientists from Michigan State University. 

One of their key recommendations urged the university to “avoid industry agreements that involve complete academic departments or large groups of researchers.” 


Not unique  

Despite the proposal’s claim that EBI will be “the world’s premiere alternative energy institute,” other programs are underway in many venues, and the University of Florida is now seeking funds to build a demonstration cellulosic ethanol plant. 

The use of microbes to produce fuels isn’t restricted to Helios either. The Massachusetts-based Celunol Corporation is using a genetically modified Escherichia coli to produce cellulosic ethanol in a demonstration plant now under construction in Jennings, La.  

And earlier this week, two Israeli scientists at Tel Aviv University announced they have discovered a fungus with a gene that enables it to produce concentrated levels of ethanol from cellulose. 

The South Coast Air Quality Management District in Southern California held a day-long conference on cellulosic ethanol in mid-February, and production of bio-oil from miscanthus was included in conference materials. 

Cellulosic ethanol is also a major anchor of the Bush Administration’s farm legislation, with $2.1 billion in loans proposed to bankroll projects. On Feb. 27, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced his department would spend up to $385 million in the next four years on investments in six cellulosic ethanol refineries using existing technologies from a variety of companies. One plant will be sited in Irvine, Calif. 

While EBI researchers have stated repeatedly that ethanol is only a small part of their research agenda, it is heavily cited in the proposal and is the major focus of effort by the White House to reduce the influence of President Hugo Chavez, who has been using Venezuela’s oil wealth to oppose Bush Administration efforts to make political headway in Latin America.