In its quest to develop commercial bio-based chemicals used to produce sustainable everyday products better than their fossil-based alternatives, Genomatica has commercialised processes for plastics and cosmetics and is well underway to engineering bio-based nylon and tyres. The company’s ability to 'programme biology' is backed by an intellectual property portfolio that includes around 700 patents and applications – resources that no doubt helped it to pick up the ICIS Best Innovation award last year for its butylene glycol product, GENO BG.
Bio-Based World News’ Dave Songer caught up for 5 Minutes With… the co-founder and CEO of Genomatica, Christophe Schilling, to find out more about the company hopes to change everyday products for the better. In the interview, Christophe explains the importance of understanding the customers’ motives, how the company overcame a two-year blip and what’s so exciting about his favourite bio-based product.
Dave Songer (DS): You have 20 years of experience in the bio-based industry – what do you most enjoy about working in it?
Christophe Schilling (CS): The technologist in me loves how we keep getting better at programming biology. The engineer in me is fulfilled by seeing concepts turn into commercially operating plants. The entrepreneur in me enjoys seeing the business and the field mature. And the conservationist in me is energised about our increasing ability to positively impact society through more sustainable everyday products.
(DS): What would you say is the biggest challenge facing the industry? And the opportunity?
(CS): I believe it’s a more exciting time to be involved in the bioeconomy than ever before. But the biggest challenges are of the industry’s own making and both have led to customer and investor disappointment: under-delivery and over-simplification. Many firms have and continue to promote unrealistic timelines to commercialisation and misleading guidance on market size or the time it takes to create new markets; the results are not pretty. Similarly, some firms over-promote the breakthrough potential of a technology that focuses on a piece of the overall problem; the issue is that customers need to deploy whole solutions.
The opportunity is to deliver and show success. To deploy real, whole solutions we need to understand what our customers are looking to do, need to do, and the world they operate in; and become a valuable and trusted partner by challenging them and presenting a distinctive point of view. But this always needs to be done while working with them to connect the dots and deliver a full solution.
(DS): What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
(CS): From 2014 to 2016 it was hard going. Our underlying technology worked, we had good commercial partners, and believed our strategies were sound but it was a very tough environment to sell into and you could feel the hesitation on bold partnerships. The timeline to realise our business plan was stretching out, placing more stress on the company. My biggest challenge was to keep it all together and navigate a course through stormy weather, and we did. We found significant new investors and partners that had a similar view of our opportunity and that gave us a great boost. 2017 was a record year, with our highest revenue ever; five new partnerships including the largest R&D agreement in our history; a smooth-running commercial plant for our first product, bio-BDO; a second product in early commercialisation, our Brontide™ bio-butylene glycol, which won the ICIS Innovation Award; and we have been rated #1 in delivering sustainability technology by the mainstream chemical industry, competing against the largest firms.
(DS): What advice would you give someone looking to get started in the bio-based industry?
(CS): Find a company whose culture and values match yours. That’s the basis for doing great things with your colleagues and loving your work. As I often share with the team, fulfilment comes from doing significant things alongside people that are significant to you, meaning you have shared purpose and work in a high trust environment. Beyond that – look for the companies that seem like they’re solving genuine customer pain or enabling entire new businesses, not just ones that have cool technology.
(CS): Yes, absolutely – more innovation, more partnerships and more market traction. 2018 is already shaping up to be much bigger than our record 2017. We kicked off this year by announcing our collaboration with Aquafil for our polyamide intermediates programme. That’s aimed at bringing more sustainable everyday nylon products to reality, like apparel and carpets. You’ll see more on bio-BDO, more on our new Brontide™ butylene glycol and definitely more partnerships. We hope we’ll be able to talk about them!
(DS): Where would you like to see Genomatica in 10 years’ time?
(CS): I see Genomatica leading a transition to more sustainable everyday products. More chemical companies, downstream firms and major brands looking to us as the go-to partner for pragmatic, advantaged technology that supports them in their key business and societal initiatives. Visible metrics of our impact, strong financials, energised employees, delighted customers and partners and much more ahead of us.
(DS): You’re due to speak at World Bio Markets this year. What can the audience expect and what are you most looking forward to at the show?
(CS): I’ll first share an update on Genomatica for those not familiar with us, and what we’ve achieved this past year. Second, I hope to share some of the lessons we’ve learned on our journey, with the hope it can be useful to others, as well as sharing my thoughts on how to advance the industry. Also, it’s such a great place to meet people, and I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts and lots of great networking.
(DS): What is your favourite bio-based product and why?
(CS): I’m especially fond of a bio-based athletic shirt made with bio-BDO produced using our GENO BDO process. The very first of these is on display in the lobby of our San Diego Innovation Center. The shirt made our innovation tangible and real and meant that people could see and touch what it meant to be able to get the same great products but which can also be made more sustainably. That shirt opened a lot of good conversations.
(DS): Thanks very much, Christophe, we look forward to welcoming you and Genomatica at World Bio Markets.
Read the last 5 minutes with… Carl Wolf, vice president, Europe, of LanzaTech.
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