Biofuels start-up nabs $5 million in funding

LS9 wants to make fake fuel out of synthetic plants to run real cars.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
LS9, a high-tech fuel company that's all about imitating nature, has received $5 million in funding, as the search to derive alternatives to fossil fuels through plants and microbes gains momentum.

The company hopes to make what it calls "renewable petroleum," a synthetic version of petroleum and other oil-based industrial products. (It has trademarked the name.)

Synthetic petroleum can provide more energy, per gallon, than ethanol, advocates say, and it can power the wide mass of cars on the road today. It also will result in less carbon dioxide emissions overall than regular gas dug from the ground.

Some start-ups, such as Solazyme and LiveFuels, have announced plans to produce synthetic petroleum from algae. Fields of algae will absorb carbon dioxide and other compounds and metabolize it into petroleum, the companies said.

By contrast, LS9 said it will brew petroleum through synthetic biology, laboratory and industrial processes that can perform the same function as algae or microbes. As a result, production doesn't rely on live, single-celled creatures. Ideally, this will make the manufacturing process more amenable to performance enhancement or control. In a sense, LS9 will make imitation petroleum with imitation animals.

The company's efforts are largely based on research conducted by Chris Somerville, director of the Carnegie Institution and professor of plant biology at Stanford University, and George Church, the director of the MIT-Harvard U.S. Department of Energy GTL (Gas to Liquids) Center and professor of genetics at Harvard University. Khosla Ventures is the principal investor, and Khosla Venture partner Doug Cameron is the acting CEO.

In a relatively short time, the Khosla firm has formed something of a microbe mafia by investing in a wide variety of companies that concentrate on harnessing the power of synthetic or real biology. The firm has invested in Gevo, a company spun out of the California Institute of Technology that hopes to develop ethanol production processes by imitating the metabolic processes of termites. Khosla is also one of the primary investors in Mascoma, which is building a plant in New York state to turn leftover farm products and other vegetable matter into ethanol with microbes.

Additionally, the firm had an investment in Celunol, which was bought by Diversa, a maker of industrial enzymes founded by Caltech professor Mel Simon. Simon has touted the termite ideas being developed at Gevo.

Much of the expertise at LS9 revolves around enhancing the feedstock, or vegetable matter, that gets converted into fuel. But the company will be working with academics and companies like Diversa in its effort to develop synthetic fuel.

LS9 is one of a number of synthetic biology companies trying to produce fuel. Upstart Amyris Technologies, which produces a malarial drug through synthetic biology, is trying to develop jet fuel via the same processes. (Khosla is also an investor.) Meanwhile, Craig Venter, who cracked the human genome, has started a company called Synthetic Genomics that is trying to exploit natural and synthetic biology.

Somerville last month told CNET News.com that the U.S. has the spare plant matter to produce alternative fuels. A Department of Agriculture study in 2005 noted that the U.S. produces about 1.3 billion dry tons of excess biomass a year, and about 60 percent of that, or 780 million dry tons, is agricultural waste, he pointed out.

"That could produce about 130 billion gallons of ethanol," Somerville said. The U.S. uses about 140 billion gallons of transportation fuel a year, he added.