Lygos Inc. receives two grants for microbial technology projects

By Katie Fletcher | October 28, 2014

Lygos Inc., a company that evolved from the U.S. DOE’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, recently received two grants; $100,000 for a phase one project and $450,000 for a phase two project under the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Small Business Innovation Research program. NIFA awarded 100 grants, totaling more than $18 million to small businesses for research and development to lead to technological innovations and solutions in American agriculture.

Companies who apply for the SBIR program initially apply for phase one feasibility studies, which may be followed by phase two research and development projects if successful. Phase one grants are capped at $100,000 over a period of eight months, and phase two grants top off at $450,000 over two years.

Although Lygos cannot share specifics on the awarded phase one project, the phase two project receiving $450,000 will develop new purification techniques for organic acids, specifically looking at malonic acid, which is Lygos’s first product.

“Lygos develops fermentative technology, where we engineer microbes to sugars or other renewable resources from carbon and then make projects from those, so small molecule chemicals is predominantly what we’re focused on,” said Jeffery Dietrich, chief technology officer and founder of Lygos.

Biomass Magazine reported in 2012 that the company could not disclose specifically which molecules they were targeting, but now the company is speaking publically about their first product, malonic acid. “That grant is really focused on how you get malonic acid out of the fermentation process at a low cost and high efficiency,” Dietrich said. “I would say, that the techniques for developing for that process would ideally then be useful for other compounds that we or others are working on as well.”

Dietrich said the company has learned a lot about what types of products they will focus on. He compares the company’s strategy when working with compounds, in some ways, to what Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America do for different drug candidates and applications. Lygos funnels down from a relatively large number of compounds by doing proof of principle production, and then focuses on specific ones to optimize and move to pilot production. Dietrich said, Lygos is working on about three different compounds currently, all at different stages of optimization.

“We always knew we were going to work on microbial technologies to produce different compounds, and really what we’re finding is our niche area is trying to identify existing chemicals that are currently made for petroleum,” Dietrich said.

According to Dietrich, the processes used to produce these chemicals are extremely environmental hazardous or expensive. As a result, Lygos is focusing on where there are fundamental inefficiencies in the market today, where Lygos technology can be cost competitive and environmentally friendly. “Generally speaking we are looking at much higher value commodity and specialty chemicals, and our total production cost we estimate will be lower than the raw material cost for the incumbent producers,” Dietrich said. “It is really kind of a unique area where we are looking at what biology does extremely well, and where petro chemistry inherently is not going to be able to compete.”

Lygos is in the final stages of negotiating a pilot-scale contract, and is looking to scale up that process beyond the pilot plant in the next year or two. “It’s been a slow, but steady route towards commercialization,” Dietrich said.

As Lygos continues on their route towards commercialization they are looking to collaborate on different projects with larger, existing companies. “We recognize that as a startup company we’re not going to be able to take our first product to market alone, and it’s going to certainly be in partnership.”