How Codexis Aims to Stand Out from the Biofuels Startup Crowd

In the overcrowded biofuels business, it’s hard to tell the pretenders from the contenders.

Every company claims to possess breakthrough technology that is just about ready for commercialization. Just ask Algenol, Amyris, Bluefire Ethanol, Coskata, Genencor, Gevo, LS9, Mascoma, Novozymes, Range Fuels, Synthetic Genomics (which is funded by ExxonMobil) and Terrabon. In the last couple of years, I’ve taken a look at Poet, (See Poet, seeking patronage), Qteros (Qteros: Turning mud to big money) and Solazyme (Gee whiz, algae!), among others.

Today, I’ll turn my attention to Codexis, which, like its rivals, has a beautiful website, big ideas and very little in the way of commercial production of a biofuel not made from food. That’s the problem here -- a sustainable biofuel such as cellulosic ethanol, which is ethanol made from the wood, grasses or the non-edible parts of plants, always seems to be a few years away, despite the hopes of venture capitalists and politicians.

It was back in 2007, after all, when Congress mandated that the U.S. use 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol yearly by 2010, and 250 million gallons by 2011. Congress, alas, can’t mandate technological progress or persuade algae to grow faster, no matter how much money it throws at the problem, so neither target will be met, not by a long shot. For a skeptical view of the biofuels biz, see Robert Rapier’s blogpost, Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Begins to Set In. A former ConocoPhillips exec and a chemical engineer, RapAlan Shawier doesn’t think that "large-scale commercialization of cellulosic ethanol will ever be viable."

And yet ... many scientists, investors and corporate executives, including some in the oil industry, believe strongly in biofuels, which brings us to Codexis. Shell has invested $350 to $400 million in Codexis, according to the company’s CEO, Alan Shaw (right), who spoke with me this week in Washington. “It’s the largest privately funded biofuels program in the world,” Shaw told me.

Codexis also has partnerships with Merck and Pfizer, because its enzymes can be engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, and with Alstom, which is using Codexis technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"Our model is to work with Big Brother," Shaw said.