"The science is there, it’s really just about commercializing it, just about scaling it up."
We talked about bioengineering enzymes to break down the cellulose and turn it into sugar, which then can be distilled into ethanol. What we didn’t talk about is how to increase the efficiency of the plants [and] how to genetically alter plants so that we increase our efficiency. If you take grass like switchgrass, we think that you can bioengineer it, so that it can grow but maybe it needs less sunlight.
If it needs less sunlight, it can grow more densely, and if it grows more densely, you get more yield per acre so the efficiency goes up. Some people think that the cellulose ethanol idea is impractical because there isn’t enough farmland. [It’s] competing with farmland for crops for human consumption and animal feed. There’s a lot of land that isn’t very productive in this country and if you bioengineer plants so that they can grow in areas that need less moisture or
maybe withstand frost, then you can expand the arable land that can be used. … Plus, we pay farmers not to farm. If we just figured out how to instead pay them to grow biofuel plants, it’d be a lot smarter.
What is your opinion of the current state of the general biotechnology market (as of October 2006)?
It’s a pretty robust market right now. In terms of amount of dollars raised/invested in biotechnology this year, we’re roughly $12 billion versus $15 billion this time last year, but there’s every reason to believe that the fourth quarter will be strong. … There are some challenges. Most of the challenges are early stage funding. Right after the Human Genome Project, any company that had a name that sounded anything like “gene” or “bio” was attracting capital. It was a bubble …and it ultimately burst. Investors are now not betting on the horses at the gate, they’re waiting for milestones to be achieved in clinical trials … That leaves a lot of projects unfunded, and so a lot of what we [at BIO] think about is Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) loans, grants for early stage development. … Increasingly you’re seeing states that want to build biotech hubs providing early stage capital, and working on ways to translate research that’s done in universities to spin off companies.