Are Manufacturers and Investors Looking for the Same Thing From Industrial Biotech?

The morning plenary session at BIO’s World Congress featured Jenny Cross from Mohawk Industries, makers of carpets, and Steven Mirshak of DuPont Tate & Lyle, suppliers of a biobased ingredient for Mohawk, discussing what consumers are looking for and how industrial biotech can meet their needs. Cross noted that their consumer research indicates that the typical consumer is looking for quality and durability, with price and “green” attributes coming second.

One point that Cross emphasized is that the carpet and flooring industry is a mature industry, with established (very old) capital infrastructure and well defined markets. To increase their revenue, the industry can’t raise prices — it must lower costs of production. So industrial biotech applications must fit into existing infrastructure without adding to capital costs.

Interestingly, in the lunch plenary with venture capital investors Michael Curry of Investeco Capital, Kef Kasdin of Battelle Ventures, Bill Lese of Braemar Energy Ventures, and Don Roberts of CIBC, all the speakers reiterated the search for capital-light opportunities. Following the recent economic downturn, venture capitalists are looking for companies with lower capital requirements and lower risks, which means they must have either lower up front costs or shorter timelines to return on the venture investment.

Roberts emphasized that recent IPOs — such as Gevo and Amyris — show good value by keeping capital costs low, ensuring steady low-cost raw material supplies, and planning to reach profitability quickly.

Biofuels Are a Priority Says USDA’s Tom Vilsack

Today, USDA’s new Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack discussed his priorities in a conference call with reporters across the country.
Two of those priorities? You guessed, biofuels and climate change.
The priorities as listed in a statement relased today by the USDA are:

1. Advancing research and development and pursuing opportunities to support the development of biofuels, wind power, and other renewable energy sources, saying that USDA needs to make sure that the biofuels industry has the necessary support to survive recent market challenges while promoting policies that will accelerate the development of next-generation biofuels that have the potential to significantly improve our energy independence.

2. Making progress on major environmental challenges, including climate change. Vilsack said it’s important that farmers and ranchers play a role with USDA in efforts to promote incentives for management practices that provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and help farmers participate in markets that reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

What can I say? Except for, this is well, fantastic.

The biofuels industry, is still what many would consider to be a fledgling industry. On this blog in particular, we have spent a lot of time talking about the technology, why it’s a good thing and so on. But what we haven’t spent a lot of time talking about is what kind of dollars it would take to make it happen.

Government support is important for generating dollars. An excellent example of this is the Renewable Fuels Standard. My colleague Matt Carr, wrote a blog post for the, The Hill’s Congress Blog, Keeping the Standard. In his post Matt says,

That we continue to support the development of biofuels is critical. Cellulosic ethanol is on the verge of becoming a viable industry. But for this to succeed, government support, including the production requirements outlined in the Renewable Fuel Standard, must be consistent and reliable. This support stimulates investor confidence, which in turn generates much needed capital. Do you look into the future and see a United States independent of foreign oil? If so, look now at the Renewable Fuels Standard.”

Matt is exactly right. Government support generates investor confidence. But just where are we in the investment arena?

On January 23 Biofuels Digest published, VC investment in US biofuels reaches $680.2 million in 2008. According to Biofuels Digest that included,

$437 million for cellulosic ethanol, $175.9 million in microalgae, $42 million in butanol and 25.3 million into systems and infrastructure providers. VC invested $110.5 million in the 4th quarter economic slowdown, after a lively $233 million in the 2nd quarter, high for the year.

Stay tuned to see what happens in 2009.