Termite fuel picks up steam

blog Venture capitalists are starting to invest in the concept of turning organic material into fuel.

Tech Culture

Last month, we reported how a trio of scientific luminaries outlined how the guts of termites might prove to be a model for the fuel factory of the future.

And now, VCs are putting money into the concept.

Khosla Ventures has invested in Gevo, according to Venture Wire. The company specializes in developing biological mechanisms for turning organic material into fuel.

One of the staff members of Gevo is Jared Leadbetter, associate professor of environmental microbiology at the California Institute of Technology. Much of Leadbetter's work centers on the digestive tract of termites.

Termites are complex beasts, says Mel Simon, a Caltech professor and founder of Diversa, which commercialized enzymes and microorganisms. Termite guts contain hundreds of microorganisms lined up in a precise pattern. These organisms turn wood into sugar for the termite. Simon and others believe that these same processes could help humans turn wood and plant matter into sugar, and then ferment the sugar into alcohol that could fuel a car.

The interlocking and overlapping relationships among these microorganism companies are also interesting to see. It's no termite gut, but it's fun to watch.

Khosla Ventures' Doug Cameron serves on the board of Gevo as well as on the board of LS9, a synthetic biology company whose founders include Stanford University professor and plant biologist Chris Somerville. Somerville and Simon are two of the prime scientific advocates for taking the biological approach to fuel production.

Another big advocate of this approach is Steve Chu at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. (Chu, Simon and Somerville were the ones who outlined the termite thesis earlier in the month.) He works with University of California at Berkeley professor Jay Keasling, whose work has inspired Amyris Biotechnologies, another synthetic biology/energy company. Khosla has also invested in Amyris. The company's CEO comes from BP, which just said it would invest $500 million in an alternative energy lab at Lawrence Berkeley. At Chu's recent speech at the CleanTech Venture Summit, Vinod Khosla was there at the head table.

Expect to see cooperation among these parties someday on a lot of different projects.

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