Solazyme-Jonathan Wolfson

Solazyme: Turning algae into edible oils

Jonathan Wolfson’s dream in 2003 was to prove that algae could prove a viable substitute to petroleum. Today, the company he founded, Solazyme, is arguably the leader in the algal fuel race.

But there’s a lot more to the company, which is why Forbes selected Wolfson and Solazyme for inclusion its tally of the most Disruptive Names In Business 2013.

They company has had a number of breakthroughs with algae-based fuel. In 2011 United Airlines was the first to fly a jet with algae-based fuel, and agreed to buy 20 million gallons a year of it from Solazyme.

That same year the US Navy bought a load of algae-based diesel to fuel a destroyer. According to the Navy the algae-fuel produces far less exhaust than conventional blends.

Several filling stations in the Bay Area, where Solazyme is based, even offered motorists a test of algae-based diesel.

These are more concrete results than what Craig Venter of Synthetic Genomics has achieved in his algae-oil venture with ExxonMobil.

But something happened on the way to discovering the secret to green diesel. Solazyme has discovered all sorts of other novel uses for algae. A lot of that has to do with the novel ways in which they grow the green gunk.

When Solazyme started off, the idea was to grow algae in big ponds where it could soak up sunlight. But through experimentation the founders soon determined a better way was to grow algae in the dark, in big vats, into which they feed carbohydrates like sugar.

In testing myriad strains of algae, Solazyme found that it can mimic many kinds of common oils, from cocoa butter and palm oil to olive oil or even pork lard.

“This is disruptive technology,” says Wolfson. “Not only can we make renewable oils, but all of these oils–from a palm kernel replacement, to a heart healthy food oil–can be produced out of one single fermentation plant in simply a matter of days all by switching out the microalgae strain.

These were all-new opportunities. And because Solazyme’s costs of making this algae-fuel are still higher than what they can sell it for (at least until they can scale up) the company has raised cash for non-fuel algae projects — including $200 million in its May 2011 IPO and $115 million in convertible preferred notes in January.

“We realised early on that we needed a business model that would allow us to use the power of our technology to produce any kind of microalgae and to enter higher-value markets,” says Wolfson. He’s taken this novel ability to tailor specialised oils to a variety of big partners.

With Unilever it has a deal to make high-grade algae oil for use in food and soaps. In a joint venture with agri-giant Bunge, Solazyme is building a plant in Brazil that will feed low-cost Brazilian sugarcane into its algae vats to make speciality oils on a larger scale.

Solazyme is also working with ADM, and in Iowa has retrofitted ADM’s massive industrial fermenters to instead house algae that it feeds with leftover leaves and stalks from the corn harvest….

Forbes: Read the full article