Brazil’s Votorantim Takes Stake in Amyris; Support for Commercializing Diesel From Sugarcane by 2010

Jose Michael

Amyris is engineering yeast to produce renewable hydrocarbon fuels. Click to enlarge.

Brazil’s Votorantim Novos Negócios (New Business) has made a strategic equity investment in Amyris, a synthetic biology company focusing on renewable hydrocarbon fuels (earlier post). This investment supports the Amyris’ objective of commercializing renewable diesel fuel produced via fermentation of sugar from sugarcane by 2010, and brings to more than $100 million the total capital raised by Amyris during the past year.

Earlier this year, Amyris and Crystalsev, one of Brazil’s largest ethanol distributors and marketers, established a joint venture to commercialize advanced renewable fuels—including diesel, gasoline and jet fuel—made from sugarcane.

Amyris engineers new metabolic pathways in industrial microbes (bacteria or yeast) to produce isoprenoids—molecules used in a wide variety of energy, pharmaceutical, and chemical applications—via fermentation of sugar from plant-based feedstocks such as sugarcane. The end product can be a “drop-in” hydrocarbon fuel—a fuel with the same molecular structure found in its traditional petroleum analog. The renewable diesel project uses a modified yeast.

The key to producing high titers of isoprenoids in microbes is to increase the isoprenoid precursor supply by engineering an entire biosynthetic pathway foreign to the microbe. As developed by Dr. Jay Keasling at UC Berkeley (who launched Amyris in 2003), the eight-enzyme, synthetic pipeline produces copious quantities of isoprenoid precursor in Escherichia coli. Inserting an isoprenoid biosynthetic gene (“synthase”) into this platform microbe allowed the conversion of the precursors into any isoprenoid as specified by the synthase.

Amyris initially targeted the production of artemisinin, an anti-malarial therapy. That mission is now being addressed by an Amyris non-profit initiative, in which it applies its technology to provide a second source of artemisinin, which will be commercialized by sanofi-aventis.

The Votorantim Group is one of the largest private conglomerates in Brazil with significant presence in the production of cement, metals and eucalyptus pulp and paper. Votorantim also produces concentrated orange juice and specialty chemicals, and is involved in the generation and distribution of electricity. Its financial arm is Banco Votorantim. It operates in twelve countries and has more than 50,000 employees. Votorantim Novos Negócios (VNN) is the private equity and venture capital arm of the group.

As a result of the investment, Dr. Fernando Reinach, a general partner at VNN, is joining the Amyris Board of Directors. Other outside directors include Ralph Alexander of Riverstone, John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Samir Kaul of Khosla Ventures, and Geoff Duyk, M.D., Ph.D. of TPG Biotech.

In addition to joining the Amyris Board of Directors, Dr. Reinach will serve as an advisor to Amyris-Crystalsev Biofuels.

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