EATS, SHOOTS 'N' LEAVES:Amyris Drops Out of the Agrofuel Business

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday February 14, 2012 - 12:05:00 PM

Yep, Amyris [previously], the UC Berkeley-spawned company born of Bill Gates bucks to create an antimalarial drug then reincarnated as a corporation dedicated to creating fuels from plants, is dropping out of the fuel game — in precisely the same way it left the drug business. 

Ken Bullis of MIT’s Technology Review explains: 

Amyris said it’s giving up making fuels too. Instead, it will to focus on higher value products, such as moisturizers for cosmetics. The company learned firsthand just how difficult it is to achieve the kind of yields seen in lab tests in large-scale production. In an update call for investors, CEO John Melo said he is “humbled by the lessons we have learned.” 

This is a common theme for advanced biofuels companies. Range Fuels, one of the first of the current crop of companies, recently went out of business. Others are giving up on making biofuels too, also hoping to break into markets for higher value chemicals. Although they may be able to get more money per liter of product, some experts warn that these markets are also highly competitive. 

Amyris’s technology may still be used to make renewable fuels, but this will happen not at Amyris, but under joint ventures established with Total and Cosan. These ventures will need to build up their own production capacity, Melo told analysts. 

Read the rest

Amyris was created by Jay Keasling, who holds appointments at both UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

The firm’s original purpose was to produce a low-cost version of artemisin, an antimalarial drug normally derived from the artemisia, the wormwood plant. 

Amyris bioengineers genetically tweaked microbes to excrete the chemical, but dreams of lowering costs failed to materialize, and the technology was handed over to pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis to produce the drug for no profit. 

Meanwhile, thousands of small farmers who relied on growing artemisia face the prospect of loss of livelihood, given the pharma giant’s powerful marketing machinery. 

So having failed to produce a low cost drug, Amyris turned to tweaking microbes to digest cellulose, in hopes of producing fuels. 

But again costs got in the way, even after French oil giant Total invested heavily in the company, along with other investors. 

The company went public on 28 September 2010, with shares trading at $16.50, rising to a peak of $33.89 four months later. Today, as we write, they’re trading at $6.77, after hitting an all-time low of $6.59 last week. 

Lo, how the dreams of the technocrats have fallen. First it was cheap drugs to save the world, then fuel to survive the end of the oil age. Now it’s cosmetics. 

This first appeared on Richard Brenneman's blog.