Genomatica has plans to turn the chemical industry green

The chemicals business has gone through massive shifts in the past, and it’s high time for another one, according to Christopher Gann, the CEO of Genomatica, who recently left a cushy position at industry giant Dow Chemical for the startup. Chemical manufacturing is perched atop the much larger fossil fuel market, thus suffering from the same high prices the rest of the world does — but, says Gann, it can be weaned off hydrocarbons. Shifting away from oil and gas is one of the most common stories in cleantech, with numerous companies claiming that they can make transportation fuels from renewable sources like corn, sugar and grasses. By contrast, chemical manufacturing has received relatively little attention, despite the fact that most chemical manufacturing is also based on crude oil and natural gas, going through stepped processes to reach the desired end product. Part of the reason is that there are tens of thousands of products to deal with, though some, like polyethylene, account for billions in sales yearly. However, Genomatica claims to have the scientific chops to simplify the problem, and produce the needed compounds on demand, and has raised $20.4 million in a second round, according to VentureWire. The company was started by a team of biotech researchers from the University of California at San Diego, who started out working with E. Coli genes. Several years ago, they realized that their expertise could be more profitably applied to organisms for other industrial uses. Similar to startups like Amyris, LS9 and Synthetic Genomics, they decided to begin custom-making organisms to produce specific substances. However, their combination of lab experience and modeling ability provided other opportunities, and the group decided to move in on the chemical industry. To create specific chemicals, the team identifies pathways in organisms with computational modeling techniques, then tests their theories out in the lab. The combination of modeling ability and lab technology in a single company is rare, says Gann, and provides a significant advantage. Genomatica is currently testing out organisms for several chemicals, with plans to move on to pilot plants to prove the processes. However, after the pilot tests, the company again diverges from biofuels startups. It has no plans to make its own full-scale plants, instead adding what Gann calls “bolt-on” facilities to existing, multi-billion dollar plants owned by larger companies. The feedstocks Genomatica can use vary widely. Syngas byproducts from biofuel manufacture can be used, as well as carbon dioxide, the culprit behind global warming. And the company can make use of “a very broad array of plant matter,” says Gann, exceeding the reach of biofuel makers, who need plants that are highly cost-effective. Cleanup after the processes should also be simpler, only requiring cleanup of the fermentation matter and dead cells. Genomatica isn’t entirely alone in its plans. Novomer wants to revolutionize plastics manufacturing, although it will rely on chemistry, rather than biological processes. Another startup, Segetis, appears to plan on using biological feedstocks, but again, will use chemical processes; the company was backed last year by Khosla Ventures. Of those companies, Genomatica has raised the most funding to date, about $24 million including its first funding. The backers in this round were led by Mohr Davidow Ventures, with participation from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Alloy Ventures. The company is based in San Diego, Calif.

Greentech Media raises $2.75M to expand cleantech coverage

Greentech Media, one of the major players in the burgeoning market for cleantech news and analysis (next to VentureBeat, of course), has raised $2.75 million in second round funding, led by EGORA Holding and The Massachusetts Green Energy Fund. King Hill Capital signed on as a new investor, with existing backers Lightspeed Venture Partners and Northport Private Equity also taking part.

Gevo raises another $17M for synthetic biofuels

Gevo, the Pasadena, Calif., based developer of synthetic biofuels just wrapped up a $17 million third round of funding. New investors Burrill & Co. and Malaysian Life Sciences Capital Fund joined cleantech regulars Khosla Ventures and Virgin Green Fund; the biofuel start-up has already raised over $30 million since the beginning of last year.

VentureBeat's SF Green tonight — here's the agenda

Below is the agenda of SF Green, the cleantech event that we’ve joined its founder Steve Newcomb to put on tonight at San Francisco’s 111 Minna Gallery. This schedule isn’t set in stone, but should give a rough idea of how the evening will go, from the doors opening to the end of the night. But first, a final list of all the companies and presenters: Headlining we have Ray Lane, managing partner at Kleiner Perkins. Tesla Motors will be there with a pair of Roadsters, represented by VP of marketing Darryl Siry. Also showing off their green vehicles will be Smart, with its newest Fortwo car, and Vectrix, with its highway-speed electric scooter. Demoing on the floor are two other companies: Akeena Solar, a solar installer that’s also bringing an Andalay solar panel; and Ponoko, an on-demand manufacturer that will have some assorted goods on hand. Here’s the agenda: 5:00 p.m.: Doors open to the first arrivals, networking begins 6:00 : The official program begins, with quick intros of the demoing companies 6:10 : Darryl Siry comes on stage to talk about Tesla 6:35 : Ray Lane of Kleiner Perkins comes on to talk about Fisker, Think USA and other investments 7:00 : Official program ends; demos and vehicles open, open networking 9:00 : SF Green ends, but the bar stays open, so stay on if you want

HelioVolt claims CIGS thin film efficiency record

HelioVolt CEO BJ Stanbery is set to announce that his company has set a new speed record for CIGS conversion efficiency, ratcheting up the pressure in the competitive, high-stakes thin-film solar cell sector. The Austin, Texas, start-up, which raked in a cool $101 million in second round funding last October, claims its proprietary FASST reactive transfer printing process can produce cells with a 12.2% conversion efficiency in a mere 6 minutes.

Utility execs anticipate few acquisitions, but more reliance on cleantech

Earlier this week I wrote about a PricewaterhouseCooper report on cleantech investment last year, which pointed to a rising trend in the startup world. A new report released today by the same company gives a good look over the opposite side of the cleantech fence — the board rooms of electricity utilities worldwide. The report, based on questionnaires sent out to industry executives, shows that utilities are well aware of oncoming changes. While renewable energy ranked only sixth in their concerns in 2004, it hit the top spot in 2007, and still holds it today. Emissions and efficiency are also top concerns. Energy efficiency is expected to have the greatest overall impact over the next decade, while nuclear energy tops the list of technologies expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite widespread reservations, United States, China, and Exxon all move forward on carbon sequestration

In the cleantech world, carbon sequestration, or the practice of capturing CO2 emissions and trapping them underground or inside materials, is something of a black sheep. Environmentalists call it a “boondoggle”, some engineers think it’s “absolutely crazy”, and even some politicians have called it a risky bet. Yet a string of recent announcements show that the technique has enough support to compete with other green technologies for attention, and money. The most recent is a United States Department of Energy funding, which will put $126.6 million toward two separate sequestration projects, one in California and one in Ohio. The DoE now funds six projects in total. However, a much larger chunk of money, up to $1.3 billion, may go toward a partial revival of the canceled FutureGen project, according to an almost simultaneous announcement by the DoE. Also unveiled yesterday were Exxon Mobil’s plans for a new plant in LaBarge, Wyoming, which will aim to freeze CO2 and other gases out of the methane that the company is mining for in the state, turning them into a liquid that it can then sell. The surge of interest in carbon capture, which also includes studies in Washington and the much older Weyburn Project, is inspired in large part by the growing worry, held by utilities, mining companies and oil firms like Exxon alike, that a cap-and-trade or carbon tax system might soon be enacted in the United States. The DoE, with its responsibility for energy supplies in the States, has a natural interest in seeing fossil fuel plants continue to operate, and so will continue putting money toward carbon sequestration. What’s more surprising is seeing that China, which has heedlessly poured money into coal, the cheapest and dirtiest energy source, is also getting into the potentially expensive sequestration game. A state-sponsored company called GreenGen is working toward a 400 megawatt generation plant with carbon capture technologies, with construction planned to start in 2013. That’s significantly more ambitious than most other projects, both those in the United States and international efforts like Statoil’s Sliepner in Norway, which captures about 2,800 tons of CO2 each day. However, another Norwegian company called Sargas is claiming 95 gas capture at $20 per ton, and looking for funding for its own 400MW plant, to be built even sooner than GreenGen’s. While most of the efforts involve large companies working with somewhat older technology that’s known to be expensive — Exxon has been using various form of carbon sequestration for 25 years — there is still some capacity for startups to take part. Researchers in France, for example, just announced the development of a nanomaterial capable of holding CO2, which will allow companies to skip the step of pumping it underground. And of course, there’s Calera, a Khosla Ventures funded company that claims it can use captured CO2 to make cement. But ultimately, for most known methods, the projected costs for carbon sequestration rapidly become unsustainable. The reason isn’t just a dollars-and-cents issue, it’s also an energy investment issue. Compressing and containing CO2 requires large amounts of energy. That means that if you’re sequestering CO2 emissions from coal, you may need to burn an additional 25 percent just to provide energy for the sequestration process — which in turn creates more CO2. Among many other potential problems, possible leakage of CO2 is sequestered underground also hasn’t yet been ruled out.

Green drink craze? Steaz teas raises $11M for organic and fair trade tea

The environmental movement, increasingly fed by the specter of global warming, is causing a lot of side effects. Trademarks including words like “eco”, “earth”, “environment” and “organic”, for instance, have exploded in popularity. One specific trend that’s seeing venture investment is environmentally-friendly drinks. Just three days ago we reported that Adina For Life raised $6.6 million for juice, coffee and tea. Now another firm called The Healthy Beverage Company, which operates under the trade name Steaz, has managed to round up $11 million for fairly traded, organic (and kosher!) teas. Sold in cans and bottles, Steaz drinks are sold by retailers like grocery stores and gas stations. However, the ultimate game plan probably involves an acquisition by the likes of Coke or Pepsi, who are deeply interested in “green” branding (or washing, depending on your take). The funding was provided by Inventages Venture Capital and Whitefish Group. HBC is based in Newtown, Pennsylvania.

Osage Bio Energy secures $300M for barley-based ethanol

Aiming to be one of the first companies out the door with second generation biofuel production capacity, Glen Allen, Virginia, Osage Bio Energy has just received a healthy $300 million commitment from First Reserve Corporation to build four facilities that will produce barley-based ethanol and a specialty protein feed. The company is the first to pursue the commercial-scale development of barley to ethanol bio-refineries.

Australian geothermal project could show worldwide potential

While most of the investment community’s attention stateside remains squarely focused on solar, wind and biofuels, adventurous types in Australia have been dabbling in the nascent, and promising, field of hot fractured rock (HFR) geothermal energy. The pioneer in this sector has been Geodynamics, which is nearing completion of a 50 MW demonstration plant to extract energy from a fracture network 4,200 meters below ground.

SF Green brings Tesla, Ray Lane and others to San Francisco on May 12

VentureBeat is proud to announce a gathering for clean technology entrepreneurs next Monday, May 12. We’ve joined forces with SF Green, a San Francisco gathering founded by Steve Newcomb that aims to help shape the region’s cleantech and environmental future.The aim is to bring together some of the brightest local entrepreneurs and investors, as well as other interested parties — environmentalists, government representatives and regular citizens — in one place, helping to forge connections and spark new ideas, just as we did last week with our Digital Media launch party. Keynoting the next SF Green are Ray Lane, the managing partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who invested in Fisker Automotive, the new Think America partnership and the solar thermal startup Ausra; plus Tesla Motors’ VP of marketing Darryl Siry, and a Roadster or two. Both will join us for Q&A sessions at different times during the evening, with the chance for the crowd to ask a few questions of their own.

Marine power gets $7.5M boost from DOE

Tidal, current and wave energy technologies received a vote of confidence from the DOE, which has pledged up to $7.5 million in funding to support new projects. It plans on partnering with major U.S. research institutions and firms to develop new and innovative technologies that will more efficiently harness the ocean’s bountiful energy.

Big companies line up to invest in cellulosic — Mascoma is latest beneficiary, gets $81M

With oil past $120 a barrel and possibly headed to $200, cellulosic ethanol companies are looking like a smarter investment choice every day. Following the increase of Range Fuels’ second funding to $166 million, its competitor Mascoma has pulled the wraps off an $81 million funding of its own, with $10 million coming a major oil and gas producer, Marathon Oil Corporation. Range, Mascoma, Coskata and others are all racing to raise huge amounts in an attempt to bring the world’s first full-scale cellulosic plant online. The stakes are high: If the process proves to be cheap enough, investors will be eager to pour money into new plants. On the other hand, waiting to see if competitors fail won’t be particularly helpful — each company has its own proprietary process. Mascoma will begin production this year at a demonstration plant in Rome, New York, but is also planning facilities in Michigan and Tennessee. By comparison, its two largest competitors will build a single, big plant each, a bet that could presumably result in a more spectacular success, or failure. Backing each company is a network of high-profile investors, some of whom overlap. General Motors has investments in both Coskata and Mascoma. Morgan Stanley is with Range Fuels, which also counts Khosla Ventures as an investor — and Khosla has invested in Mascoma, as well. Taking venture fundings and government grants together, Range Fuels is the most heavily funded, Mascoma coming second with just over $200 million now, and Coskata third. It’s possibility none of the three emerge with a competitively priced product — something that also hinges on whether oil prices continue to climb, or fall back to somewhat saner levels. If all three find their methods too expensive, there is still a constellation of smaller cellulosic startups waiting for their own turn in the spotlight, like Zeachem.

Israel Cleantech Ventures raises $75M fund

Passing by its target of $60 million, new Israeli venture firm Israel Cleantech Ventures has raised $75 million for its official first fund from backers including Robeco and Piper Jaffray. Claiming to be Israel’s first cleantech-focused fund, the firm already has bets on some companies, and is planning on investments across most of the cleantech sectors. However, there are a few that are likely to receive more attention, due to the geographical location and political realities of the country. Several solar companies, including leading solar thermal firm Solel, have sprung up within Israel’s sun-drenched borders. Water is a strong market, with companies like Aqwise working on desalination technologies, and electric car-enabler Project Better Place also has a focus on the country, because of its small size. ICV already has investments in Aqwise and Better Place. The firm has three general partners and four more venture partners; a list is here. It’s based in Ramat Hasharon.

Firefly Energy raises $16M for powered-up lead acid batteries

The Peoria, Ill., startup capped off a $16 million third round of funding to continue developing and marketing its carbon and graphite foam-based battery technologies for commercial and military use. Khosla Ventures and Infield Capital, which signed on as new investors to lead the deal, were joined by Stark Capital, Caterpillar and other previous investors.

Lifestyle drink brand Adina for Life raises $6.6M

San Francisco-based organic and fair trade drink maker Adina for Life has raised $6.6 million in a second round of funding to leap into what one of its financiers calls a “perfect marketing storm”. The company makes juice drinks, coffee and tea, emphasizing sustainability and fairness to small farmers — providing for the aforementioned marketing storm. (Although it should probably be noted that plenty of large corporations, like Starbucks, are eager to dilute that marketing message with their own sizable presence.) Adina’s drinks are sold by outside vendors like cafes, gas stations and grocery stores, including at least one Bay Area Whole Foods. The $6.6 million funding was provided by Sherbrooke Capital, a Boston, Mass. firm. The Seraph Group also participated.

Segway ups third funding to $35M — have you bought yours yet?

Sidewalks used to be so much nicer, before the Segway Personal Transporter started hitting the streets. Remember being able to walk peacefully along, happy on the two legs God gave us? Then Dean Kamen brought us the Segway, and suddenly you couldn’t step outside without one whizzing by. Everyone and their neighbor bought one, making Kamen and his investors rich — Whoops, sorry, wrong future. In retrospect, it seems at least a little silly that the Segway got as much hype as it did back in late 2001 and 2002, to the point of top Kleiner Perkins VC John Doerr saying that Segway would be the fastest outfit in history to reach $1 billion in sales. Yet the firm has also survived thus far, and appears to be expanding the $10 million third round of funding we reported in January, according to a filing dug up by VentureWire. Segway’s blessing and curse is its oddball design. It’s packed with electronics and gyroscopes that keep the vehicle balanced and make rolling around at the pace of a running human effortless. Unfortunately, aside from being ridiculous looking, Segways are also expensive, a combination that has sent most potential consumers buyers packing to alternatives like Edge scooters. Nobody except the company knows how many have been bought for recreational use, but the fan club has long since disbanded, and in most places, just spotting one makes for a red-letter day. What has saved Segway, at least so far, is its business customers. Police departments and security love to use Segways for what were previously onerous foot patrols. Warehousing businesses and golf clubs have bought them for employee and visitor use. Google, predictably enough, offers them as a perk to employees. Other uses abound — anywhere walking, biking or driving is impractical, a Segway can likely fit in. What’s interesting about the reported funding is that one of the new investors is the Masdar Clean Tech Fund, an arm of Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Initiative. While that could just be a venture investment, it’s possible it was more of a strategic funding — after all, Abu Dhabi will need to figure out some zero-emissions transportation options for its promised zero-emissions city. If Segway is selling worldwide, especially to other small cities that need a local transportation option, the company could get recoup its investments, which have now reached almost $150 million of venture capital and $100 million in development costs. And though the fan club may be dead, Segway is still reaching for a consumer base, with its recently launched Segway Social network. There’s also the strong likelihood that the company will roll out other transporter designs in the future. Backers on the round, which VentureWire says is $35 million total with a recent tranche of $9.5 million, include Kleiner Perkins, CSFB Private Equity, the Masdar fund, buyout firm Duff, Ackerman & Goodrich, and others.

Tesla Motors opens first store in L.A., talks about future plans

The Tesla Motors executive team and a gaggle of reporters and celebrities were out en masse yesterday to witness the grand opening of the company’s flagship store in Los Angeles. Close to 9 months in the making, the store was the culmination of several years of hard work — at times fraught with delays and production troubles — for the San Carlos, Calif., company.

Thin-film solar startup Sunovia raises $12M to compete with First Solar

Usually when we’re talking about startups with thin-film solar cell technology, they’re working with copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) or silicon. Sunovia, however, wants to follow in the footsteps of the $21 billion giant First Solar. Both make thin-film cells based off cadmium telluride (CdTe), a substance that works well in solar cells but is also toxic. CdTe cells have also outstripped by the efficiency of CIGS cells, at least in laboratory conditions. Part of what distinguishes Sunovia, at least according to its own statement, is an efficient and compact scheme for manufacturing that can produce 100 megawatts of cells a year from a 10,000 square foot facility. Other companies require substantially larger manufacturing areas. Sunovia is planning to have a manufacturing line up and running within two years. Aside from its solar cell business, the company also has an LED lighting subsidiary called EvoLucia, which just completed a first installation. The source of the $12 million funding was not disclosed. Sunovia says it has raised over $25 million to date. The company, based in Sarasota, Florida, is trade on the over-the-counter bulletin board as SUNV.

Range Fuels ups earlier round to $166M, racing against Mascoma and Coskata

Cellulosic ethanol producer Range Fuels has heaped more than $50 million extra onto a $100 million round we reported two months ago, picking up the support of Passport Capital, Morgan Stanley Capital Group and others. While the company originally planned to keep the round to $100 million, it appears to have received intense interest in its project. While the round was at first over-subscribed to $130 million, according to Ethanol Producer Magazine, Range has now taken a total of $158 million, according to a regulatory filing obtained by VentureBeat. The cap on the round is currently $166 million. The additional funding should give Range the edge it needs to speed ahead in the race to open the world’s first full-scale cellulosic ethanol refinery in Soperton, Georgia, which broke ground last November. At 100 million gallons per year of capacity, the plant will be larger than many existing facilities that make ethanol from corn. Importantly, it has trees from the surrounding forests on-hand for use, rather than counting on next-generation feedstocks like switchgrass that have yet to be planted at scale. Size is important for Range, because the thermo-chemical process the company uses works better at large scale. Yet even with its size advantage, a number of onlookers have speculated that the company may suffer from the pitfalls of being first to try out a complex process. Just breaking down woody fibers into a product isn’t good enough — Range’s ethanol must also be cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels, albeit with the help of subsidies. Its investors either don’t have the same expectation, or have been caught up in the drama of (maybe) leading a (possible) revolution.

SkyFuel raises $17M for solar thermal mirrors

SkyFuel, a manufacturer of components and technologies for solar thermal power generation, has raised a $17 million second round of funding (release via Earth2Tech). The company’s primary products are a mirrored material called ReflecTech, which could make mirror production for solar thermal plants cheaper, and the SkyTrough, a parabolic reflector. SkyFuel is also working on a “Linear Power Tower”, which is a Fresnel solar system somewhat like what Ausra uses for its own solar thermal designs. The final product SkyFuel is working on is an energy storage system for when the sun isn’t shining. Leaf Clean Energy provided the funding round. SkyFuel, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had previously taken $1.6 million.

Sunrgi claims bargain-basement power prices from new solar concentrator design

When looking at next-generation renewable technologies, you’ll hear a lot of claims about how cheaply they can create electricity. Usually the figures hover around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is about low enough to compete with the mix of coal, oil and nuclear power most utilities use. No such small ambitions, for a new startup called Sunrgi, which is unveiling its technology today at the annual National Energy Marketers Association convention. Sunrgi claims it can provide power for as little as half the above figure, at about 5-7 cents per kWh. That’s low enough to undercut damn near everything, with the possible exception of cheap, dirty coal — for which prices have been going up. Conventional solar cells cost upwards of 20 cents per kWh. Sunrgi uses a concentrating solar power design, which generally means you start off with a tiny, highly efficient solar panel and focus in the sun’s rays on it with mirrors and lenses. A variety of companies already do this, including SolFocus, which has raised heaps of cash and even sparked a small bidding war toward commercializing the concept. It’s debatable whether concentrated solar power can compete, long-term, with regular solar panels, but Sunrgi says it has two tricks to magnify CSP’s advantage. The first is a special, lens-only concentrating design with built-in solar trackers, which can focus over 1,500 “suns” on a single point (by comparison, one of the previous biggest claims for concentration levels was Greenvolts’ 625 suns). For an idea of how this might work, try to think of the most ingenious way possible to torch ants with magnifying glasses. This scheme causes a problem, namely heating the solar cell that’s supposed to be generating electricity to over 1,600 degrees Celsius (or over 3,000 Fahrenheit). That’s where the second part of Sunrgi’s technology comes in, with a special cooling design, combining active and passive measures, that keeps the cell at around 30-40 degrees C (86-104 F). Cooling is important above a certain level to avoid actually burning the solar cell, and below that point to reduce the failure rate. This ties in heavily to the cost equation, co-founder Dr. KRS Murthy told me in an interview — where other companies will have to pay heavy maintenance and replacement costs, Sunrgi’s well-chilled cells will last much longer, he said. But beyond the details I’ve laid out, Sunrgi isn’t saying a great deal. The members of the management team who joined me on a call declined to give any further details of exactly how they cool the solar cells. While they did suggest a size for their utility-scale generation modules — 14 inches square, with a solar cell of less than a centimeter square in the center — they are still applying for patents, and so don’t want to describe the units further (although you can get an idea from the pictures at right and below). What they did say is that they’re still conducting field testing on the units, continuing to optimize the basic design, and working on models for different markets (aside from utility generation, they’re looking at smaller commercial and industrial applications). That said, perhaps the second most surprising assertion Sunrgi has to make, after the price, is that they’ll be manufacturing within 12-15 months. If Sunrgi can pull it off, that would be one of the faster production turnarounds a new energy generation technology has yet seen. On the other hand, if the price claims can be proven on a large scale, there will be plenty of investment dollars lining up to grease the industrial gears. Speaking of funding, that’s the one missing part in the company’s claims. While the founders and executives have solid backgrounds, they haven’t yet announced where their backing is coming from. I’m told that several top VC firms are in talks with the company, though, as well as a “major strategic partner”, with announcements due in a week or two — so stay tuned for more.

TechnoSpin raises $8M for small wind turbines

TechnoSpin, a New York-based company creating small wind turbine designs for both consumer and commercial use, has raised $8 million in its first venture funding. While the company is gearing up to make a turbine for sale mainly in remote and rural areas, it is also working on a gear mechanism that may be useful in applications beyond turbines. The $8 million funding was led by 21Ventures. The company itself also has facilities in Israel, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

First Reserve buys Gamesa Solar for $408M, creates $940M renewable energy fund

First Reserve Corp. is a private equity fund based in the United States. The firm has acquired Gamesa Solar, a division of a larger Spanish company, for about $408 million. Along with the acquisition, First Reserve has also announced a $940 fund that will be applied toward renewables, primarily solar energy projects. The amount will represent a significant portion of First Reserve’s next fund raise. The firm’s current $8 billion fund is nearly expended, according to the Financial Times, and it will be raising a further $12 billion.

Super-efficient lighting technologies provide energy saving ideas, outdoors and in

In Australia, the husband and wife team behind Lumiflux has found a way to make a 50 year old technology seem new and, well, shiny. Electroluminescence, or EL, has been the technology behind your digital watch night-light and a series of small lamps from Sylvania for a long time. Until quite recently, though, EL was not bright enough for more widespread area lighting applications.