Alan Shaw, CEO Calysta, right and Josh Silverman, the chief scientific officer.
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, can be gobbled up by protein-producing microbes. The protein biomass is converted into things like food for farmed salmon or chemicals or other products, according to Ian Shaw, CEO of Calysta Inc., and Josh Silverman, the chief scientific officer. That salmon, of course, is an important source of protein that could serve a growing human population.
To help get there, three-year-old Calysta in May bought BioProtein, a Norwegian company with a novel reactor that feeds methane to the bacteria. Norwegian energy company Statoil dropped $350 million in the 1990s and early 2000s into the technology, which Shaw said makes Calysta’s fermentation process that much more efficient.
“Calysta is first in this space,” Shaw said. “BioProtein accelerates our time to market.”
Eventually, said Silverman, who was a founder of Siluria Technologies Inc., Calysta could produce food for pigs and chickens. That, he said, is a roughly $150 billion market.
BioProtein’s plant was shut down by Statoil, Shaw said, but not before delivering up to 10,000 metric tons of fish meal into the European Union market from 2002 to 2005.
Calysta in December raised a $3 million Series A round led by Canadian venture capital firm Pangaea Ventures. Another round of funding could close yet this year, Shaw said.
Meanwhile, Calysta continues plans to build its own plant, which may use natural gas, and collaborate with NatureWorks LLC to use its technology to make lactic acid, now produced from cornstarch, into biodegradable plastic products such as bottles and food packaging.
“These are products people will pay for,” Shaw said. “It’s market-pull rather than product-push.”
Sounds crazy, right? But unlike the biofuels “big one” that evaded the hook of companies like then-Calysta Energy, which as a group hoped to convert natural gas and other feedstocks into renewable fuels, Shaw and Silverman are determined not to let this one get away.
Most importantly, Shaw and Silverman say, the economics are different for Menlo Park-based Calysta.
Fishmeal prices have surged over the past decade and natural gas prices have dropped; one of the problems of the biofuels story has been that no one has been able to make a cheap-enough alternative to fossil fuels.
“We did ultimately fail. We couldn’t get the biomass to where we needed it,” said Shaw, former CEO of Codexis Inc.
“No one could make any money with cleantech,” he said.
What’s more, Calysta’s product could sell itself. Its experimental fish food is higher in protein content than soy protein concentrate, has a shelf life of about two years (compared to traditional fishmeal’s three-month lifespan) and could reduce demand for anchovies and sardines that are ground up for fish meal.