San Diego-based Genomatica, an industry-leading biotech firm for the chemical industry, continues to grow its team and product line after 20 years in the business.
Founded in 1998, Genomatica bases its business on technology that was developed in the lab of Bernhard Palsson at UC San Diego.
One of Palsson’s graduate students, Christophe Schilling, went on to get his Ph.D. and become CEO of Genomatica.
In 2007, the company pivoted to develop more sustainable chemicals, using its bio-based process to work with large companies to replace traditional chemical engineering.
“Genomatica is in the business of sustainability,” said Schilling. “We are doing two things at Genomatica: using renewable feedstocks (from widely used ingredients including corn), and using synthetic biology as opposed to traditional chemistry.”
Making Sustainable Chemicals
Today, the firm has a vast portfolio of chemical products that it manufactures or licenses out to major manufacturers.
Leveraging fermentation, Genomatica makes bio-based alternatives to the petroleum-derived chemicals that would normally go into making your nylon clothes, your coffee capsules, and even your skin care products.
Genomatica’s product line includes a sustainable way of making the chemical butanediol (BDO), which used to make certain types of plastics and elastics, such as lycra and spandex.
“Our basic product is providing the blueprint of how to build, design and operate it, the microorganism that goes into a fermentation tank that is specially engineered to make that chemical,” he said.
A large plant in Italy uses Genomatica’s method of making BDO, Schilling said, which produces a total of 30,000 tons per year, used in biodegradable coffee capsules, food packaging, plastic cutlery and straws.
On a smaller scale, Genomatica also produces and sells its own version of butylene glycol, a chemical used in cosmetic products as a moisturizer.
It receives income by licensing its intellectual property to other companies — much as Qualcomm Inc. licenses its wireless technology patents to electronics makers.
Another company that licenses the BDO technology is Germany-based BASF SE, which reported 2020 sales of about $60 billion. Genomatica does not disclose revenue.
Over 500 Patents
The company has about 150 employees at its Innovation Center in the University Towne Center area, up from 80 staffers four years ago.
Genomatica has more than 1,800 patents issued or pending, its patents relate to underlying computational technology.
For Schilling, one major factor in his company’s pursuit of replacing older chemical engineering processes with biologically based ones has to do with sustainability.
But that isn’t limited to just traditional chemical engineering. He also sees room to make other agricultural products more sustainable.
In particular, Genomatica is very interested in producing a sustainable alternative to palm oil, which is used in many products but demand for which is causing large-scale deforestation in certain regions.
In total, the company has raised over $280 million in venture capital to date. Genomatica is backed by Casdin Capital, Viking Global Investors, which continues as Genomatica’s largest shareholder, and organism engineering partner Ginkgo Bioworks.
Maintain Company Culture
The stay-at-home order has meant virtually no travel and placing an bigger emphasis on company culture.
“You don’t know if you have a great culture until it has been tested. Our employees have learned new ways to be effective at their jobs without the usual carbon emissions,” said Schilling.
“The shutdown has created new leaders within Genomatica, lab workers continue to evolve the company’s safety culture and practices in the face of the pandemic. We’re fortunate to be in an industry that is passionate about what it’s doing,” he said.
Looking forward, Schilling predicts future momentum as consumers pay more attention to where their products are coming from.
“People are now asking a lot more questions and trying to understand things more and more. There’s an organic movement and people are conscious about what chemicals are used to make food,” he said. “This as part of our responsibility as well and see this as a great opportunity to educate people.”