October 9, 2009

As Algae Summit Begins, San Diego Yearns to Make Houston Green With Envy

The 2009 Algae Biomass Summit gets underway in San Diego today, offering the latest sign of the algae biofuels sector that has bloomed in San Diego in recent years. Cleantech San Diego president Lisa Bicker told reporters at a pre-summit news conference last night that more than 625 cleantech companies are now based in the region—including 30 local biomass energy and biofuel companies that the non-profit industry group lists on its website database. As biomasses go, that’s enough to make an impression on the more than 700 investors, entrepreneurs and other interested parties who are expected to attend the three-day conference, which is devoted to the science and economic potential of the nascent algae industry.

San Diego’s academic, business, and political leaders see algae-based technologies as the next big thing, a natural outgrowth of the region’s prominence in biotechnology and proximity to the ocean. Algae biomass companies who set up shop here can tap into a rich labor pool of scientists and biotechnology workers, and an entrepreneurial culture that nurtures life sciences startups. That observation—coupled with a belief in the potential of algae—led to the formation of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology in April. As Bruce reported back then, local leaders gushed that San Diego was on its way to becoming a “Green Houston.”

Whether that scenario comes to pass has much to do with where algae biomass fuels are headed. Steve Mayfield, a Scripps Research Institute expert in algae genetics has predicted that algae-based fuels would be available in the next decade at the bargain price of $2 a gallon. A lot of technological and logistical problems must be worked out before his forecast becomes a reality, but such talk certainly signals the enormous enthusiasm in some quarters for the exciting potential of what is essentially pond scum.

Some leaders in the new industry have tried to turn down the volume—less by what they have said than by what they haven’t said. Sapphire Energy CEO Jason Pyle has been careful not to over-promise to avoid getting caught up in the hype. Sapphire is backed by Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and is very well-funded, making it one of the key companies to watch in the space.

Pyle recalled the lessons of the dot-com bubble in an interview with Bruce last autumn, just as the excitement about algae was beginning to really take off. More recently, Pyle told another reporter: “This isn’t the 1990s anymore. You can’t just get lucky, found a company and accidentally make a lot of money.”

OK,we’re a long way from 1990. But if you are reading this, it is Wednesday—the opening day of the Algae Biomass Summit. And here’s a list of some of the highlights to come at the event, which continues through Friday at the Marriott San Diego Hotel and Marina:

—Synthetic Genomics’ Paul Roessler (filling in for J. Craig Venter) today will discuss his company’s deal with ExxonMobil that was announced in July.

—DOE Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy Jacque Beaudry-Losique is giving a keynote on Thursday which is expected to touch on the challenges and opportunities facing the industry.

—Also on Thursday, representatives of Boeing, Honeywell, FedEx, Novus International, Mars Symbioscience and Valero will provide their take on algae technology at an energy end-user panel. A panel on U.S. government algal biomass programs follows this event.

—Sapphire’s Pyle and Mark Allen of A2BE Carbon Capture co-chair an industry panel discussion Thursday afternoon.

—Tom Byrne of Byrne & Company chairs a venture capital and financing roundtable Friday morning.

(Xconomy San Diego Editor Bruce V. Bigelow contributed to this story)

Denise Gellene is a former Los Angeles Times science writer and regular contributor to Xconomy. You can reach her at dgellene@xconomy.com

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