In a new ‘insights from industry’ E. William Radany, Ph.D., President and CEO of Verdezyne talks to Gary Thomas about sustainable industrial biotechnology.
GT: Could you please provide a brief introduction to the industry that Verdezyne works within and outline the key drivers?
BR: We work in an industry called industrial biotechnology. We have focused on developing organisms to manufacture building block chemicals that go into a variety of polymers, polyamides and polyurethanes. These are molecules such as adipic acid, used in nylon 6,6, sebacic acid, used in nylon 6,10 and dodecanedioic acid (DDDA), used in nylon 6,12.
GT: Could you please give a brief overview of Verdezyne, including the history and the development of the company?
BR: The company was originally founded as CODA Genomics, derived from technology which sought to optimize the synthesis of synthetic genes based on algorithms for self-assembly and algorithms for optimized expression.
I joined the Company in 2008 and in conjunction with the Board it was decided to cease being a service provider focused on enabling pharmaceutical and industrial biotech companies with synthetic genes to build molecules, but instead focus on making the “billion-dollar” molecules ourselves.
In late 2008 we enacted the transformation of the company, accordingly, from a service provider to a new product-focused company, termed Verdezyne (meaning green design). We then relocated the company from Laguna Hills to North County San Diego owing to the high quality pool of scientific talent here.
Since then, we have come a long way with our science. We built a pilot plant in late 2011 and are now producing approximately one metric ton of adipic acid or DDDA annually and are progressing toward commercialization.
GT: How has synthetic biology developed in the last 10 years and how has that aided Verdezyne?
BR: We were one of the early leaders in developing techniques to put synthetic genes together. If you can put synthetic genes together, you can put synthetic metabolic pathways together. If you can do that, you can envision someday putting synthetic chromosomes into organisms to direct the production of a variety of chemicals or pharmaceuticals. So, synthetic biology doesn’t just have one potential application. Synthetic biology has a huge number of potential applications in terms of human health and wellness.
GT: What are the renewable, non-food sources that you use to produce chemicals from?
BR: We use a variety of by-products from vegetable oil processing known as soap stocks and fatty-acid distillates. Just to give you a sense of the quantities available, the total global by-products of the top six vegetable oils is approximately15 billion pounds annually.
GT: Can you briefly describe the theory behind your fermentation processes?
BR: We are using yeast to carry out the metabolism of these fatty acids from vegetable oils to make high value chemicals. We’ve optimized this fermentation, generated sufficient quantities of material, enacted the downstream processing, and actually purified adipic acid to the degree that we can polymerize it and make nylon 6,6 fiber and carpet.
GT: How are the chemicals then separated?
BR: We use a variety of methods, including crystallization, as well as a variety of other techniques to purify this to 99.99% pure.
GT: What sorts of chemicals can you produce using these techniques?
BR: There’s a whole range. We are not limited to the chemicals we can produce. The critical factor is determining a commercial opportunity for the chemical we want to make. To have it be a commercial opportunity, you need to have the pathway to generate this chemical at a yield and productivity that make it commercially viable in relation to existing petrochemicals.
GT: In what ways are these chemicals sustainable?
BR: We use a variety of vegetable oil processing by-products from renewable sources such as, for example, soy, canola, palm and coconut.
GT: Are the prices of these chemicals competitive?
BR: Yes. We are cost advantaged in the range of 25-45%.
GT: How much CO2 does the chemical processing emit relative to petroleum-based processes?
BR: We have not done a detailed life cycle analysis of this. However our preliminary data suggests that our production methods would save approximately one ton of CO2 per ton of adipic acid produced, compared to the incumbent process.
GT: Have the chemicals produced by Verdezyne been used in large-scale industry?
BR: Not the chemicals made by us, as such, but certainly they are widely used in the nylon industry.
GT: What is next for Verdezyne? How do you see the industry progressing over the next decade or so?
BR: New chemicals, new opportunities! I think our industrial biotechnology sector will start to mimic the biotech pharmaceutical sector where the pharmaceutical companies start partnering more extensively with biotech companies. Similarly, I anticipate the big chemical companies will start partnering more extensively with renewable chemical companies like Verdezyne.