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High stakes: Neil Renninger is chief technology officer of Amyris, a company that makes chemicals and biofuels using genetically-modified yeast.

As an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, Neil Renninger was part of an MIT blackjack team that won millions at casinos by using card counting to beat the house. Yet the stakes were low compared with what he tried next: he cofounded Amyris, a synthetic-biology company that attempted to take on the oil companies by making biofuels.

For now, the luck seems to be with the oil companies. Advanced-biofuels companies like Amyris, which has engineered yeast to make a hydrocarbon that’s a replacement for diesel, were supposed to have been producing hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel by now. But that is proving far more difficult—and more costly—than they imagined. Some, such as Range Fuels, have run out of funding and filed for bankruptcy.

Earlier this month, Amyris also said it would all but exit the fuel business and focus on making low-volume specialty chemicals like moisturizers. “We did well playing blackjack. We’d easily win well into the seven digits as a team,” says Renninger, who is chief technology officer of Amyris. “But fuels and chemicals are a multitrillion-dollar business.” The scale is different by “orders of magnitude,” he says.

Some green energy companies, like competitors LS9 and Gevo, battery maker Seeo, and electric-car maker Tesla Motors, were started or staffed by young engineers from schools like Stanford and MIT, who resolved to apply their talents to challenges such as climate change rather than heading to the pharmaceutical industry or Wall Street. By the mid-2000s, enthusiastic students were swelling enrollment in undergraduate energy courses, while the U.S. Department of Energy was putting out calls for “the best and the brightest … to transform the global energy landscape.”

Renninger, a chemical engineer and biologist, was at the leading edge of the wave. Amyris got off the ground with big, change-the-world ambitions. The company’s first project was genetically engineering microörganisms to make a malaria drug, something that promised to save tens of thousands of lives. “We were not paying people well,” says Renninger. “People came on board because they were inspired by the impact that they could have with their science.”

For an encore, the company settled on an even more ambitious target: making biofuels at a scale large enough to challenge petroleum consumption. “We could have said our next product was going to be strawberry flavoring. That wouldn’t have been exciting to the troops at Amyris,” says Renninger. “It would have been wholeheartedly rejected. Because at the end of the day, who cares if you made a better strawberry flavoring?”

Yet after about seven years of biofuel development, Amyris is now asking its employees to do essentially that. The company announced that it would direct attention away from biofuels and toward relatively low-volume products such as squalane, a moisturizer for cosmetics, as well as oils for flavors and fragrances and industrial chemicals such as an additive for plastic bottles.

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Credit: Amyris

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, business

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