Regents Vote Wednesday on Lease for Biofuel Lab

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday September 18, 2007

UC Regents are scheduled to vote Wednesday to approve a lease on an Emeryville building to house a federally funded $250 million biofuel program. 

But just where the lab will be housed, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab officials won’t say. 

Ron Kolb, the lab’s chief media officer, said he can’t disclose the location because the regents will hold their vote in closed session, and because officials at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) must also give their approval. 

“When the lease becomes an official document, we are happy to share the information with you. This may not occur for a couple of weeks,” Kolb said in an e-mail. 

The DOE-funded Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) is a separate program from the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) bankrolled by a grant from BP, plc—the company formerly known as British Petroleum. 

The BP lab will be housed in a specially constructed building planned for the LBNL campus on the slopes above Strawberry Creek in the Berkeley Hills. 

Meanwhile, the company founded by a UC Berkeley scientist who plays a leading role in both JBEI and EBI has just added 70,000 square feet to the space it leases in Emeryville, according to the San Francisco Business Journal. 

Amyris Technologies, founded by Jay Keasling and three graduate students, specializes in biofuels and in creating a cheap version of the antimalarial drug artemisinin, the latter with the help of funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Keasling and another academic-cum-corporate founder, Chris Somerville, are the two Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers who have key roles in both the federally funded and British-backed biofuel programs. 

Amyris’s new lease is in Wareham Development’s EmeryStation East; the company already leases another 20,000 square feet in Emeryville, most of it in Wareham’s EmeryStation North. 

And at least one source close to the negotiations said the university had been in active negotiations for a lease in the same building. 

Robert Sakai, technology and trade director for the Economic Development Alliance for Business, said that if JBEI locates there, it could encourage companies like ChevronTexaco to locate their own startups nearby. 

“To me, that’s good news,” he said. 

EDAB, a public/private consortium devoted to helping businesses locate in the Bay Area, was enlisted by lab officials early on in their search for support in winning the DOE grant. 

Keasling’s company also hired BP’s North American vice president while UC Berkeley and LBNL were making their pitch for the $500 million grant from the British oil company, and in June the firm hired three other officers who had also worked for BP: Paul Addams, who had headed the team managing BP’s American oil portfolio; Jim Alderman, who had held executive positions at Tosco and BP, and Ena Chen Cratsenburg, who had last worked at another Emeryville company, Pixar. 

The hirings were announced by Amyris CEO John Mello, the BP executive hired during the UC-BP negotiations. 

Amyris recently posted an on-line recruitment pitch for a director of facilities to oversee an “upcoming construction project on 75,000 to 90,000 ft. of office and laboratory space.” 

That size is considerably larger than the 50,000 square feet LBNL sought for the JBEI in solicitation issued on March 23. 

The lab would employ 158 scientists and support staff, and accommodate an additional 16 visiting scientists, according to the lease prospectus. 

Research would concentrate on three areas: feedstock (plants for conversion into fuels), deconstruction of the plants into useable component and the synthesis of fuels from those components. 

The JBEI project will involve scientists from UC Berkeley and its affiliated Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national labs as well as UC Davis and Stanford. 


Other regent actions 

The regents are also scheduled to vote this morning (Tuesday) on the $135 million budget for capital improvements at the Clark Kerr Campus, of which $6.75 million will come from the UC Housing New Revenue Fund and the remainder from external financing. 

Meeting Thursday, the board’s committees on Educational Policy and Finance are set to approved fee increases from professional degree programs for the 2008-2009 school year and a three-year program for increased fees in the professional schools. 

Members of the Grounds and Buildings Committee will receive updates this morning (Tuesday) and lawsuits challenging UC Berkeley growth plans and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Long Range Development Plan. 

Two sessions Wednesday will focus on the search for a replacement for UC President Robert C. Dynes, who resigned on short notice last month. 

While his four-year tenure had drawn fire over an executive pay schedule, Regents Chair Richard Blum had complained that university building projects were taking too long to get off the ground under Dynes’ tenure. 

In a 12:05 p.m. session, the Committee on Governance is scheduled to amend the board’s policy on filling the presidency, and at 3:30 a special committee on selecting a new president will discuss criteria for the search for Dynes’ replacement.