Amyris and other flashy biofuel companies are now in a very different place.

In August, Amyris Biotechnologies announced its collaboration with Queer EyeJonathan Van Ness is on a new hair care line. In terms of tech announcements, this wasn’t likely to hit many radars, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. But what is striking about the story, which is not mentioned in the press release, is that 20 years ago Amyris Biotechnologies was not a cosmetics company, but a startup that was hailed as a vanguard in the biofuels revolution.

Amyris also isn’t the only one in this transformation. Solazyme, Lanzatech, Neste, LiveFuels, LS9 and Pacific Biodiesel are all biofuel companies that also had their beginnings and have since expanded their business to include cosmetics, fragrances and household cleaners. From the outside, this transformation may seem somewhat strange. But I’ve been working at Amyris (although I don’t have any links to it now), and I can see how the shift makes sense. The change provides a surprising example of how businesses have shifted to new highly promoted technologies over time.

To understand this dramatic reorientation, it’s helpful to see why so many of these companies existed in the early 2000s. Biofuel, as defined by the Department of Energy, is any type of plant mass that is converted into a liquid fuel for transportation needs. Some of the first waves of biofuel development in the United States came in the 1970s, in part a product of the oil crisis of the past decade. The research experimented with using the United States’ abundant supply of corn as feedstock to produce ethanol as a fuel, but the projects never produced the kinds of yields needed to make a measurable impact in the oil and gas industry. The interest faded, then rekindled again in the early 2000s, thanks to the war in Iraq and raising alarm bells louder about climate change. Government subsidies became available for research into alternative energy sources, only when the field of biotechnology was making significant technological strides. In particular, DNA sequencing tools have seen major breakthroughs, making it considerably easier to manipulate genetics to sequence organisms toward productive ends. For biofuels, this meant that genetic modifications could be used to increase the charge of the feedstock or microbes involved in fuel production.

Labs and start-ups are beginning to develop the next generation of biofuels using this genetic engineering. It’s the kind of thing that gets pretty well published in Wired magazine and looks cool, smart, and elegant (or at least it did to me when I was 23 looking for a job outside of college), but it also starts off as an almost impossible premise. These companies were set up to do expensive research and development to try to convince a living thing to produce fuel for less money than extracting oil that already exists from the ground. They were trying to make something as cheap as oil, something quite ingrained in the economy because of its cheapness.

The people driving the ship of these companies knew that they were gambling in poor conditions. Founded in 2003 as part of this group, Amyris’s story of its origins included famous venture capital entrepreneur Vinod Khosla who urged its founders this way: “Set your eyes on diesel. It’s the hardest thing you want to do, but it’s the biggest market out there, and you’ll build a company.” amazing “.

Late Note, almost all of these companies experienced significant financial and technical difficulties. Making fuel from genetically modified microbes seems, on a technical level, feasible; Making it widespread and competitively priced was a different story. In 2010, in a well-publicized stumble, Amyris CEO John Mello promised investors that by 2011 the company would produce 6-9 million liters of its fuel, farnesin, each year, and 40-60 million by 2012. These The numbers to be produced were nearly insignificant for the oil and gas industry, from which Milo was chosen. But it was also totally unrealistic for the biotech, and the company was ultimately only able to deliver a million liters in 2011. Almost every other company encountered less dramatic versions of the same: unable to meet their already modest production targets. Many – perhaps most – of these startups have been fully celebrated: Range Fuels, Sapphire Energy, Coskata, KiOR, Beta Renewables and they are all now closed. Companies trying to avoid collapse had to quickly find and find a new strategy.

The most successful rehab began with the recognition that the fuel produced by bioengineered microbes was closely related to several other chemicals associated with much higher price tags. Genetic engineering may not have had the horsepower to produce hundreds of millions of liters of product per year, but it did have the knack for modifying fuels into other products. This made it possible to start with an already developed basic chemical and turn it into something very relevant to many different industries. Amyris and Solazyme at various points sought the use of synthetic lubricants, rubber substitutes, plastic additives, food additives, nutritional supplements and fish food. Gevo, Enerkem, Neste, Virent Energy, LS9 and Cobalt Technologies are just a few of the other biofuel companies that have variously pursued rubber, plastics, chemicals, textiles, paints, adhesives, solvents and detergent ingredients. This shift was pervasive enough in the industry that by 2012 the annual hype list of Biofuels Digest, the top 50 bioenergy companies, was expanded to become the hottest in bio-based and renewable chemicals, and in 2017, the hottest in advanced . bioeconomy. On the one hand, companies have been diversifying their sources of income; In another, they were throwing spaghetti against the wall.

These kinds of endeavors were initially positioned as diversions—adventures to pay the bills with the pursuit of biofuels as a more realistic, long-term timeline. But as time passes, biofuels dwindle out of sight. To an extent, this flexibility has always been part of the strategy. For example, Amyris started in an academic lab making the antimalarial drug artemisinin before switching to biofuels. But the focus on building a bioengineering platform, with its agnosticism towards the products being brought to market, seems to have increased over time. To date, most of the still existing biofuel companies have settled into their new fields. For some companies, such as Gevo and Neste, this specialty is alternatives to petrochemicals; Other companies, such as Amyris, Lanzatech and Solazyme (before filing for bankruptcy in 2017), have taken formal steps to rebrand themselves as players in the cosmetics industry.

The transition was disappointing for me as a lab technologist willing to work for lower pay at a startup doing “meaningful” a similar job at big pharma. I’ve watched the industry go from making something that’s meant to be revolutionary and mission-driven, to things that are a little scattered and, in all honesty, boring. Again, it made sense: After developing a certain type of technology for at least 10 years, you could also use it for something, and there are worse things in the world that you can make from a very nice moisturizer. These companies still emphasize first and foremost in their eco-friendly branding (save sharks, replace palm oil, reduce carbon emissions) – even though there is a whole host of anti-GMO NGOs in business to debunk their net claims environmental or social good.

If the world needed just one proof that replacing one type of extractive logic with another is not likely to solve our environmental problems, here it is. But it’s also worth noting the basic logic as these bad odds continue to gamble: target taking. a few months ago, Freakonomics I got an episode with Vinod Khosla where he basically gives the same advice he gave the founders of Amyris 20 years ago – ‘Go to the moon’. He argued that when you dream big, even if you miss, you’ll still land somewhere bigger than if you had hedged your bets and played it safe.

The long arc of early biofuels is helpful in how it’s less likely to land among the stars than it is in the shampoo industry. Stretching for something so elusive – cheaper oil than cheap oil – companies stumbled and had to look for a sure bet to keep things going. Often the most assured bets have been conservative industries: cosmetics, industrial lubricants, and plastics. In the various reflections and course corrections of the current account of big technology, it is worth remembering the initial achievements that, rather than spurring revolution, industries can establish interactive returns for tried and true ways of making a profit.

Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that studies emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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