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DiFi’s Spouse Buys into Berkeley Prof’s Company

By Richard Brenneman
Monday September 13, 2010 - 08:41:00 PM

U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein’s hubby Richard Blum has bought more than a million dollars worth of stock in UC Berkeley professor and federal-sponsored agrofuel scientist Jay Keasling’s Amyris Technologies, reports The Hill

That makes the powerful Democrat a business partner of Bill Gates, who provided the funding Keasling used to launch his company, which was originally billed as a firm that would use genetically modified bacteria to produce anti-malarial drugs. 

Amyris, once headquartered in Berkeley, has been commercially repurposed as a company that seeks to use GMO technology to produce agrofuels, transforming plants into transportation fuels. 

The company’s CEO, John Melo, came to Amyris from an outfit formerly known as the Anglo Iranian Oil Company and better known today as BP. 

Keasling was a lead player in UC Berkeley’s successful bid to win a $500 million agrofuel development grant from BP, and he’s done well by Melo, who was rewarded with a compensation package of $829,950 last year despite the company’s losses of $120.4 million over the last three years, according to Green Energy Reporter

Amyris also shares the same building with another Keasling-headed agrofuel venture, the federally funded Joint Bioenergy Institute [JBEI] which operates out of the fourth floor of the building where Amyris occupies the ground floor, making an easy commute for Keasling between his public and private operations. 

While JBEI is entirely federally funded, Amyris is also tapping into the public purse, landing a $25 million grant in December, as Josh Richman reported for the Bay Area News Group’s Political Blotter: 


Emeryville-based Amyris Biotechnologies Inc. will get a $25 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for a pilot plant producing renewable fuel – a diesel substitute – by fermenting sweet sorghum. The Energy Department doled out $564 million last week to 19 such bio-refinery projects nationwide; Amyris was the only Bay Area recipient. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hope the projects will help lay a foundation for full commercial-scale development of a U.S. biomass industry, reducing the nation’s foreign-oil dependence while creating jobs. 

Amyris’ plant will also be able to co-produce lubricants, polymers and other petro-chemical susbstitutes. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said the plant “would create approximately 75 new jobs in the area and propel Amyris’ cutting-edge renewable fuel technology. 


Feinstein ranks in tenth place on The Hill’s list of rich federal lawmakers, most of whom managed to boost their wealth while the rest of us were getting poorer, report Kevin Bogardus and Barbra Kim. 

In March, 2009, Biofuels Digest reported that Feinstein had introduced legislation to cut import duties on Brazilian ethanol: 


In Washington, six senators from both parties introduced legislation to reduce the ethanol tariff from 54 cents per gallon to 45 cents, to achieve parity with the recent reduction in the ethanol blender’s credit. The blender credit for first-generation fuels was reduced from 51 cents to 45 cents. One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Diane Feinstein, said that the high ethanol tariff limits Brazilian ethanol imports and encourages the use of gasoline. Feinstein (D-CA), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Susan Collins (R-ME), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Mel Martinez (R-FL.) are sponsors of the bill.  

Things get interesting when you realize that Amyris has launched a major effort in Brazil to use its technology to transform sugar cane into ethanol and from there into other fuels. 

According to the company’s website


Amyris Brasil is expanding our production capacity by working with Brasilian sugar and ethanol producers to produce Amyris fuels and chemicals through a “capital light” production model. Under this model, these producers will invest a substantial portion or all of the capital needed to build the Amyris facility for production of our renewable products while Amyris will provide technology, plant designs and technical expertise. Amyris Brasil will then market and distribute the products to end customers. Our first such arrangement is our joint venture with Usina São Martinho. The joint venture, SMA Indústria Química S.A., was created to build the first facility in Brasil fully dedicated to the production of Amyris renewable products.  

In December the company signed an $82 million agreement to buy a 40 percent share in a Brazilian sugar cane mill, according to Reuters

In June, a French investor bought a large piece of Amyris, according to Green Energy Reporter


Paris-based oil and gas major Total has invested an undisclosed amount for a 17 percent stake in second generation biofuel developer Amyris.
The investment makes Total Amyris’s largest shareholder, ahead of Khosla Ventures, which has a 15.4 percent stake. Other investors include Texas Pacific Group and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Since its 2003 launch, Amyris has raised around $165 million.
Amyris, using a process developed at the University of California Berkeley, has created a sugar-based hydrocarbon molecules that can be converted into greener jet fuel, industrial chemicals or biodiesel. 

In a press release issued yesterday Total and Amyris said they planned to jointly-develop and commercialize renewable fuels and chemicals. Although based in Emeryville, Calif., Amyris does a bulk of its R&D work in Brazil. 


Last spring Amyris filed an S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for an Initial Public Offering (IPO) that seeks to raise about $100 million. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan are lead underwriters. 


Another major league backer of Amyris is Vinod Khosla, one of the leading sources of green venture capital. National Review blogger Greg Pollowitz offers this quote from the billionaire: “When I met them they were working on malaria drugs,” he said of Amyris’ founders. “Six months later the same genetically engineered bugs were producing diesel.” 

According to a 13 May 2008 National Review post by Noel Sheppard, another Amyris investor was Al Gore

And for another look at Blum profits from government, see this choice bit about his role as a buyer of foreclosed properties. 


Richard Brenneman's regular blog is Eats, Shoots 'N' Leaves.