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Agriculture Scale-Up Technology

The Amyris story: veterans of a new industry.

What links the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a Biofene plant located in Brotas, So Paulo and Muck Daddy a high-performance hand cleaner designed for mechanics?

The answer is Amyris.

A company name you will probably know but whose journey might be a surprise.

Proud of their position as one of the veterans albeit of a relatively young sector, and with all the experiences and learnings to prove it, our Editor Luke Upton recently caught up with the San Francisco based team to see where they are heading next and whats led them to this point.

Like many companies in our sector, Amyris (@Amyris) origins lie in the laboratories of a university, in this case the University of California, Berkeley where a team of post-docs were focusing on malaria. A cruel but preventable disease, malaria affects over a quarter of a billion people and claims the lives of 650,000 people every year, mostly children under the age of five in Africa.

A health worker collects a drop of blood to test a child for malaria. Photo: PATH/Laura Newman.The most effective ingredient for a cure is Artemisinic acid, but it is only found in one plant in the world, Chinese sweet wormwood and is difficult to gain in the quantities required for mass treatment. The answer for the Berkeley students was to genetically engineer a yeast cell to produce it instead and, as a result, enable it to be produced in large vats and at lower cost. Word reached the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who awarded a grant from the OneWorld Health (now PATHs Drug Development Program) to the newly created Amyris. Successful development ensued and in 2008, Amyris made available its Artemisinic Acid-producing yeast strains to Sanofi, via OneWorld Health, on a royalty-free basis.

Sanofi is now using this technology at large-scale to produce Artemisinin for Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy (ACT) treatments. Amyris still remains committed to expanding the reach of anti-malarial treatments, and its founders have helped establish a non-profit called Zagaya.

I askedJoel Cherry, President, Research & Development, at Amyris to share a little more on the early days of the company: Our success in tackling the complex challenge of producing Artemisinin served as a proving ground for Amyris. Since then, weve significantly built upon our capabilities to create novel bio-based ingredients at commercial scale utilizing our HI-RYSE (Hyper-Integration for Rapid Yeast Strain Engineering) technology. HI-RYSE utilizes site-specific genome engineering with high-throughput multiplexing to accelerate beyond many conventional means the development of molecules to enable rapid time to market for the production of new products across a variety of markets.

Building on this success, Amyris began applying its industrial synthetic biology to provide alternatives to a broad range of petroleum, animal, or rare plant-sourced products. Amyris first focused on their version of farnesene – a 15 carbon, long-chain, branched, unsaturated hydrocarbon Biofene. It is manufactured from local sugarcane feedstock, and its unique physical properties and chemical reactivity means it can be converted into a diesel-like fuel as well as used in other products like cosmetics, rubber and lubricants. All of which have enabled the company to attract key partners and grow.

brotas_01_largeThis launched a new chapter in the companys story. After a series of successful rounds of venture capital funding, Amyris undertook an initial public offering in September 2010 becoming listed on NASDAQ under the symbol AMRS before signing a collaboration agreement with French multinational oil and gas giant TOTAL. To support the initial commercial production, Amyris leveraged contract-manufacturing capabilities to begin producing Biofene at various sites around the world and later opened an industrial-scale Biofene plant located Brotas, So Paulo Brazil in 2013 (pictured left).

However, due to declining crude oil prices and the need to produce biofuels at commercial scale in order to achieve attractive economics, Amyris and other companies in the space faced significant challenges to achieving widespread market adoption. Commercial fuel production to be profitable needs to be in the hundreds of millions of litres a year at a cost of production that makes supplying the fuel attractive to both the buyer and seller. This has historically eluded Amyris as it has for many other producers within the bio-fuels sector. However, Amyris has achieved significant cash production cost reductions and believes its fuels offering is well ahead of the game compared to other biofuels suppliers based on meeting all important regulatory and other requirements. Thus far, the company has supplied drop-in fuel for some major airline commercial flights, as well as to a mass transit operator with approximately 400 buses in Brazil. Given the right economics, an increase in market adoption of biofuels would pose upside for a number of companies, including Amyris. Amyris and its fuels partner TOTAL certainly havent given up on the bio-fuels business. June 2015 saw them restructure their fuels joint venture with TOTAL to own 75% and make the commitment to proceed with commercialization plans for its jet fuel technology over the coming years. Meanwhile, Amyris is to take the lead role on the diesel part of the business. This shift gives Amyris bolstered finances as TOTAL converted a significant amount of Amyris debt it held to common stock in the company and opened up greater funding and resources for developments outside the bio-fuels space.

I was keen lean more about the status of their work with bio-fuels and the TOTAL deal: We are the first company in our sector to have successfully transitioned from development of a renewable hydrocarbon fuel to the commercialization phase, said John Melo, President & CEO of Amyris. We continue to work closely with Total on fuels and significant opportunities for our performance materials business. With our platform and collaborations, our direct exposure to volatility in crude oil pricing has very low correlation to our business activity, but we are still positioned to realize upside from our fuel and other commodity products in an environment of higher oil prices.

Amyris & DARPA (5 min Overview) from Amyris on Vimeo.

This renewed focus beyond bio-fuels will enable Amyris are able to further grow its range of sustainable, cost-competitive and high-performance products aimed at consumers. Perhaps their signature renewable cosmetic product is a moisturizer Neossance Squalane made from renewable sugarcane and a sustainable replacement for shark and olive-derived squalene.

Yes, thats right I said sharks.

Resized_BottleBox_closeIt is estimated that 3 to 7 million sharks are killed each year for shark squalane. Due to this, those species are now endangered and the EU has banned the use of shark-derived squalene. Olive squalene, while sourced more sustainably than shark, has been suffering from supply volatility due to olive crop variations. With Neossance Squalane (the companys branded name of the ingredient is spelled differently than market name of squalene), a new advanced source is now available that is sustainable, consistent in quality and has a stable supply. The companys Squalane is used in over 440 of the worlds leading brands including Revlon and Shiseido and included in the companys own branded product called Biossance The Revitalizer.

bottlefrontWhilst this Summer has also seen the launch of Muck Daddy High Performance Hand Cleaner (@muckdaddyclean) aimed at mechanics and those working with oil, grease and grime. Through Amyris work with bio-fuels they found they found that a lot of industrial workers were using petroleum-based cleaners or even clean motor oil to cleanse their hands after a long day at work. In addition to retaining a smell of oil this can lead to conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, infections, and painful broken skin.

Plus around the same time, many states started legally limiting the amount of smog-causing VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that can be put in products, including the orange-smelling ingredient limonene. As companies are adapting their formulas to reduce their use of limonene, they are proving less effective in cleansing the hands of those who get their hands dirty for a living.

Amyris saw this problem, and recognised their Myralene10 Fluid and its sugarcane-derived squalane skin moisturizer would be the answer. It recently launched its Muck Daddy High Performance Hand Cleaner which complies with VOC regulations, is bio-based, sustainable, lacks a strong odour and both cleans and improves the condition of hands.

Neossance and Muck Daddy are just two of ten consumer products developed and commercialised by Amyris, with 20+ more in the pipeline. What is interesting when looking at this brief survey of their story is that after the highs and lows of the bio-fuel focused era, which would have broken many, Amyris still retains a healthy dose of the idealism from their artemisinin efforts in the early 2000s. Its 400+ staff retain a focus on developing its technology to produce renewable products that both disrupt existing markets and solve challenging problems with innovative bio-based products.

To finish I asked for some thoughts on the future: As a pioneering company in our space, Amyris worked hard to overcome the issues that often come with moving from lab to industrial-scale commercialization in producing innovative new products, said Melo. Today, we are a leading company in the bio-based chemicals space that is leveraging its advanced technology platform to help our partners solve supply and time-to-market issues in developing new products, while at the same time launching and growing our own unique product portfolio.

Many thanks to Peter DeNardo of Amyris for the assistance with this article

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