CBiRC’s Innovation Ecosystem and Translational Research Enables Formation of Startup Entities
The Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) headquartered at Iowa State University, has continued to develop its innovation ecosystem that enables formation of startup entities based on technologies emerging from the Center. To date, five startup companies have formed: GlucanBio in 2012, and OmegaChea, Pareto, SusTerea, and VariFAS in 2013. In addition, one outside startup entity (Technology Holding) became a CBiRC member.
The key aspect of each of these efforts is to advance the technology so it can be more easily brought to the marketplace. Each company is focused in different technical space, with efforts directed toward different markets and segments of the bio-based economy. These technology-led ventures are in the process of licensing discussions for intellectual property (IP) from CBiRC, with each company exploring how best to move forward with research and development (R&D) and funding. The ERC expects partnering to occur between these startup companies and larger more-established companies; some of these alliances could form with CBiRC member companies. Looking to the future, the ERC hopes to develop a pipeline of companies working toward technology transfer.
Center Director Brent Shanks said the NSF expects its ERCs to transfer technologies from research to production lines. “We’re working to develop absolutely cutting-edge technologies that can then be transferred to the commercial realm,” he said. “But these technologies haven’t been sufficiently ‘de-risked’ for commercialization.” Among the issues to be studied: What happens when the technologies are pushed beyond the laboratory scale? Can they be cost-effective? Can they produce enough biorenewable chemicals to interest companies, including CBiRC’s 30 industry members? Center leaders came up with an R&D model they hope will answer those questions.
The startups are tangential to the ERC's core activities, complementing but not overlaying the testbed activities. What is becoming clearer is that the combination of risk (likely significant) and scaling costs (likely dramatic) presents a unique challenge for CBiRC because many of its innovations do not readily transfer to member companies. Exploration of a more appropriate startup mechanism led to a need to form CBiRC’s Biobased Foundry, which incorporates an entrepreneurship course and entrepreneurship mentoring program similar to the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Program (I-Corps prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory). The Foundry acts as an innovation incubator, nurturing early-stage startups through technology-led entrepreneurship. These startup companies create a vehicle for translational research opportunities with innovation partners and industry members, and the startups become part of CBiRC’s innovation ecosystem (see figure).
GlucanBio and OmegaChea are examples of translational research combined with the innovation ecosystem. Glucan Bio is developing a solvent-based biomass conversion platform that efficiently separates cellulose and hemicellulose and converts the sugars to chemicals and fuels. This solvent-based system is energy efficient and allows fixed and variable cost to be spread across multiple products. Glucan chose to focus on maximizing production of furfural (*) for the initial demonstration plant due to a clear market signal from multiple companies (see Endnote). OmegaChea is developing a scalable fermentation process to deliver bi-functional fatty acids, which will be bio-based chemical intermediates that will serve as sustainable replacements to petroleum-based feedstock used in the chemical industry. Customer segments of interest include surfactants and lubricants for market entry and a later play into the bio-based polymers industries. Moving forward with its technical-business efforts, the OmegaChea team envisions translation of CBiRC's KASIII (Ketoacyl-ACP Synthase III) technology from laboratory scale to commercial scale.