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Engineering Graduates Aim for Game-Changing Green Chemistry

Christophe Schilling
Christophe Schilling, Genomatica CEO and UC San Diego bioengineering alumnus

Pull on a wetsuit, and you’re wearing an engineered marvel created mostly from petroleum-based chemicals. But San Diego-based company Genomatica—co-founded by UC San Diego bioengineering alumnus Christophe Schilling—sees a different future. At Genomatica, the snap of your surfing spandex and a host of other products start with chemicals that have been produced more sustainably, by bacteria that consume something other than crude oil.

In late 2012, Genomatica produced five million pounds of BDO (1,4-butanediol), a chemical essential in the manufacture of thousands of products from fabrics to plastics. They used in-house computational modeling and genetic engineering to design E. coli bacteria that produce BDO out of renewable feedstocks such as sugar.

Now licensed to chemical giant BASF and bioplastics leader Novamont, the product is cleaner, more cost-effective to manufacture and performs exactly the same as BDO made from fossil fuels, said Schilling (Ph.D., ‘00, bioengineering).

“The big companies in the mainstream chemical industry know the end applications of these products and they know the market,” he said. “Being able to offer them the ability to sell their customers a renewable version of the same chemical, that’s very attractive to them.”

Genomatica’s success earned it the 2013 Kirkpatrick Chemical Engineering Achievement Award, which recognizes the most noteworthy chemical engineering technology commercialized globally in the prior two years. In 2011, the company won the EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award. The two prizes underscore the broad ambitions of Schilling and his team.

“Our model is to be the biotechnology partner to the chemical industry,” he explained. “We’re an enabler of change, to empower chemical companies with new technology and to make the same exact products they make today, but with better economics and greater sustainability.”

Schilling launched Genomatica in 1998 with bioengineering professor Bernhard Palsson, and the company’s platform technology stems from research Schilling did in Palsson’s lab. Their original focus was a company that would pioneer the use of computational modeling for single-cell organisms in life science applications. But in 2007 the company saw how their technology could “unlock a very large opportunity in the chemical industry,” Schilling said, “and that was compelling for us to pursue.”

Harish Nagarajan (Ph.D., ‘12, bioinformatics and systems biology), who graduated from Palsson’s lab, said this shift toward sustainable chemicals was part of what drew him to the company. Nagarajan is one of 18 UC San Diego graduates, including six from the Jacobs School, who have joined the company.

Genomatica won The Scientist’s “Best Place to Work in Industry” award in 2012 and 2013, and Nagarajan and others say the company’s collaborative and innovative atmosphere is one of the best they’ve experienced. Ishmael Sonico (B.S. ‘91, chemical engineering) especially admires the company’s core values, including his two favorites: “We are relentless” and “We are united.” From his first days on the job, he said, “I noticed that when someone had an issue, everyone attacked it, as a group... and within hours, not days or weeks, the problem was solved.”

The next challenge for Genomatica is to develop a commercially viable production process for butadiene, a key component of tires and latex. But Schilling is looking beyond specific products to having a lasting impact on the industry. “We want to say we helped plant the seeds of change,” he said, “so in 10 or 15 years we’ll see an already-innovative industry deliver products made in a better way, helping make the products all around us be more sustainable.”

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