Small differences can make a BIG difference

I recently got a chance to talk with one VC firm that's focused some of its attention and money on cleantech. One of their investments is in OPX, which seems to have a unique approach to solving some of the energy and raw material supply issues facing the planet.

I recently got a chance to talk with one VC firm that's focused some of its attention and money on cleantech. One of their investments is in OPX, which seems to have a unique approach to solving some of the energy and raw material supply issues facing the planet.

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So I was pleased to speak with Robert Chess, Chairman and CEO of OPX Biotechnologies. The firm is based in Boulder which Chess finds to be a good spot for recruiting talent and running a cleantech start-up. Costs are reasonable and talented folks are willing to move there.

Here's how OPX describes its company mission: "OPX's technology is based on the pioneering work of Professor Ryan Gill and Dr. Michael Lynch at the University of Colorado. Using a proprietary set of tools and IP known as SCALEs that enable massively parallel full genome search, identification of specific causative genes, and rapid genetic modification and testing, OPX can quickly engineer new microbes to provide major improvements in tolerance, productivity, and specificity for fuel and chemicals production using biological processes. The company's mission is to be the world's leading microbe engineering company and to use its technology to vastly decrease the production costs and capital requirements for renewal fuels and chemicals." The boldface was added by me for emphasis.

So how do they do this microbial engineering? By mapping, and then manipulating the genomic structure of possible useful yeast, bacteria, or other micro-organisms. If you want to get further into the biotech of the process here's a link to a paper at science.com co-authored by Michael Lynch at the Universiy of Colorado-Boulder.

Chess sees his VC-funded start-up figuring out the processes to make chemicals and energy sources that are needed on a large scale, then getting into actual production. That might entail partnering with existing energy or chemical distribution corporations. For example, many industries need solvents, alcohols, lubricants, plastics. Many of these are now petroleum-based. OPX would like to see their patented microbes making some of those complex organic compounds from air, water and waste products.

As Mr. Chess explained it to this non-scientist, their process--which will require several patents (now pending)--enables OPX to quickly assess the crucial aspects of a microbe's genes and then map out changes that could help. They expect todo in days what trail-and-error lab methods might take years to do. Or fail altogether. For instance, if you are trying to produce more methanol from a mass of organic waste, you might be able to alter a natural yeast to be more efficient and survive in a methanol-rich bath. Your engineered yeast could be a valuable beast indeed.