In August, Amyris Biotechnologies announced its collaboration with Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness on a new haircare line. As far as tech announcements go, this wasn’t one likely to hit too many radars, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. But what is remarkable about the story, and not mentioned in the press release, is that 20 years ago Amyris Biotechnologies was not a cosmetics company, but a startup hailed as a vanguard in a biofuel revolution.
Amyris also isn’t alone in this shift; Solazyme, Lanzatech, Neste, LiveFuels, LS9, and Pacific Biodiesel are all biofuel companies that also got their start in the early aughts and have since expanded their business into cosmetics, fragrances, and household cleaners. From the outside, this shift may seem rather bizarre. But I used to work at Amyris (though I have no ties to it now), and I can see how this shift makes sense. The change offers a surprising example of how the business of heavily hyped new technologies can transform over time.
To understand this dramatic redirection, it’s helpful to know why there were so many of these companies in the early 2000s. Biofuels, as defined by the Department of Energy, are any kind of plant mass converted into a liquid fuel for transportation needs. Some of the first flurries of biofuel development in the United States came in the 1970s, a product, in part, of the decade’s oil crisis. Research experimented with using the U.S.’s ample supply of corn as a feedstock to produce ethanol as fuel, but the projects never produced the kinds of yields needed to make a meaningful dent in the oil and gas industry. Interest faded, then renewed again in the early 2000s, thanks to the war in Iraq and louder climate change alarm bells. Government subsidies became available for research into alternative energy sources, just when the field of biotech was making significant technological strides. In particular, the tools of DNA sequencing saw major breakthroughs, making it exponentially easier to manipulate the genetic of sequences of living things toward productive ends. For biofuel, that meant the possibility of using genetic modifications to supercharge the feedstock or microbes involved in fuel production.
Labs and start-up companies began to crop up to develop next-generation biofuels using this genetic engineering. It’s the sort of thing that sits well in a Wired magazine spread and sounds cool and clever and elegant (or at least did to me as a 23-year-old looking for a job out of college), but it also starts on the foundation of a nearly impossible premise. These companies were set up to do expensive research and development to try coax a living thing to make fuel for less money than tapping already existing oil out of the ground. They were trying to make something as cheap as oil, a thing so thoroughly embedded in the economy by virtue of its cheapness.
The people steering the ship of these companies knew they were gambling on bad odds. Amyris was founded in 2003 as part of this cohort, and its origin story included the famous venture capital entrepreneur Vinod Khosla egging its founders on in just that way: “Set your sights on diesel. It’s the hardest thing you’d want to do, but it’s the biggest market out there, and you’ll build an incredible company.”
By the late aughts, nearly all these companies had run into considerable financial and technical difficulties. Making fuel from bioengineered microbes, at a technical level, seemed possible; making them at scale and price competitive was a different story. In 2010, in a well-publicized stumble, Amyris CEO John Melo promised investors that by 2011, the company would be making 6-9 million liters of its fuel, farnesene, each year, and 40-60 million by 2012. Those numbers would have been virtually inconsequential to the oil and gas industry, where Melo was picked up from. But they were also completely unrealistic for biotechnology, and the company ultimately was only able to deliver 1 million liters in 2011. Nearly every other company experienced less dramatic versions of the same thing: unable to deliver on production goals that were already modest. Many—maybe most—of these start-ups went completely under: Range Fuels, Sapphire Energy, Coskata, KiOR, and Beta Renewables were all celebrated and have now all shuttered. Companies trying to avoid collapse had to find a new strategy and find it quickly.
The most successful rehabilitations began with the recognition that the fuel being produced by bioengineered microbes was closely related to several other chemicals attached to much higher price tags. Genetic engineering may not have had the horsepower to produce hundreds of millions of liters of product per year, but it did have the finesse to tweak fuels into other products. This made it possible to start with an already-developed base chemical and turn it into something relevant to several different industries. Amyris and Solazyme at different points pursued industrial lubricants, rubber replacements, plastic additives, food additives, nutritional supplements, and fish food. Gevo, Enerkem, Neste, Virent Energy, LS9, and Cobalt Technologies are just few of the other biofuel companies that have variously pursued rubber, plastics, chemicals, textiles, paints, adhesive, solvents, and detergent ingredients. This shift was pervasive enough in the industry that the annual hype list from Biofuels Digest, the Hottest 50 Companies in Bioenergy, by 2012 was expanded into the much clumsier Hottest in Biobased and Renewable Chemicals, and in 2017, the even more nebulous Hottest in Advanced Bioeconomy. In one sense, companies were diversifying their revenue streams; in another, they were throwing spaghetti at the wall.
These kinds of pursuits were initially positioned more as detours—ventures to pay the bills while pursuing biofuels as on a more realistic, long-term timeline. But the more time has gone on, the more the biofuels have fallen out of view. To a degree, this flexibility was always part of the strategy. Amyris, for instance, got its start in an academic lab making the anti-malarial medication artemisinin before switching to biofuels. But the emphasis on building a platform for bioengineering, with an agnosticism toward the products going to market, seems to have increased over time. By now, most of the still existing biofuel companies have more firmly settled into their new niches. For some companies, like Gevo and Neste, that niche is petrochemical replacements; other companies, like Amyris, Lanzatech, and Solazyme (before it filed for bankruptcy in 2017), made official moves to rebrand themselves as players in the cosmetics industry.
The transition was disappointing for me as a lab tech willing to work for lower pay at a start-up with “meaningful” work over a comparable job in big pharma. I watched the industry go from making something meant to be revolutionary and mission-driven, to things a bit scattered and, in all honesty, boring. Again, it made sense: After developing a certain kind of technology for at least 10 years, you might as well use it for something, and there are worse things in the world to make than a pretty nice moisturizer. These companies still emphasize first and foremost in their branding eco-friendliness (saving sharks, replacing palm oil, reducing carbon emissions)— though there’s an entire cohort of anti-GMO NGOs in the business of debunking their claims to net environmental or social good.
If the world needed just one more piece of evidence that substituting one kind of extractive logic for another isn’t likely to solve our environmental problems, here it is. But it’s also worth noticing the underlying logic where those bad odds keep getting gambled on: taking the moonshot. A few months ago, Freakonomics had an episode with Vinod Khosla essentially dispensing the exact same advice he had to the Amyris founders 20 years ago— “go for the moon.” He argued that when you dream big, even if you miss, you’ll still land somewhere greater than if you had hedged your bets and played it safe.
The long arc of early aughts biofuels is instructive in how you might be less likely to land among the stars than in the shampoo-making business. In stretching for something very out of reach—cheaper oil than cheap oil—companies stumbled and reactively had to scramble for a sure bet to keep things going. The surest bets were often conservative industries: cosmetics, industrial lubricants, plastic. In the various reflections and course corrections of the current big tech reckoning, it’s worth remembering moonshots, rather than jumpstarting the revolution, can set industries up for reactive returns to tried and true ways of making a profit.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.