Will Exxon and Tech Start-Ups Battle Over Algae DNA?

Algae Pond © Larry Hamill

Algae Pond © Larry Hamill

In a recent talk before the Columbus Metropolitan Club, Ross Youngs, CEO of Algaeventure Systems, noted that while solar and wind power may have their place, “we’ll will never lift a plane off the ground or drive a truck down the freeway without high energy liquid fuels.”

And to that end, Youngs has been working on developing what may be the next big thing in biofuels – an algae based energy source. Headquartered near Columbus, Ohio – a city sited by Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the best places for tech start-ups – you could say research is blooming at Algaeventure Systems.

However, last week’s announcement that Exxon will invest up to $600 million in research of algae based biofuels brings new competition for a share of the pond.

As part of Exxon’s research strategy, they have enlisted the help of genomics pioneer, Craig Venter. The announcement came on the heels of Dow Chemical declaring that they would be dipping their big toe into the algae pond in pursuit of a potential technology bloom.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Exxon and Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, will spend the next five years determining the most suitable strain of algae, as well as figuring out the best way to grow it and how to economically mass produce it.

The Economist noted that Dr. Venter believes it may be possible to produce ten times more fuel per hectare from algae than can be had from corn. An added benefit could be that the exhaust from industrial plants, which are currently powered by conventional fuels, would supply carbon dioxide, the raw material needed for photosynthesis to produce the algae.

However, in a CNN interview with Gillian Madill of Friends of the Earth, Madill warns of a possible monopoly on biofuel. “Many of these oil companies are making steep investments in synthetic biology because they can literally own the very microorganisms that aim to produce fuel because of the current patentability of DNA. If synthetic biology proves successful, ‘Big Oil’ will not only own the fuel itself, but own the very life form that produces it,” said Madill.

Clearly, the stakes are high. According to Chad Hummell, industry and government sales manager for Algaeventure Systems, the United States Air Force is the single largest consumer of fuel in the world. Ironically, some of that fuel is used to protect fuel sources in the Middle East.

While we can hope that competition to own the fuel of the future won’t become reminiscent of the competition for fuel in the Mad Max -The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome movies, you have to wonder about the survival of tech start-ups looking to solve our energy problem.

As biotechnology start-ups continue to pursue venture capital to fund research, will they find that life in a small pond is not sustainable when big fish like Exxon and Dow Chemical hold the lure of deep pockets?

Or will they find themselves bogged down in the murky waters of a legal battle over ownership of DNA, as Madill suggests?

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