Category Archives: Amyris, Inc.

Quote of the day: Bill and Melinda, Gateskeepers

We’ve written extensively about the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in privatizing the worker of public university researchers, folks then work they did at, say, UC Berkeley, then turn into mechanism for private profit, and in so doing belie the hypocrisy inherent in their declarations of altruism.

Now Gated Development: Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good? [PDF], a major report by Mark Curtis for Global Justice Now takes a close look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and comes to the same conclusion:

[T]he trend to involve business in addressing poverty and inequality is central to the priorities and funding of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We argue that this is far from a neutral charitable strategy but instead an ideological commitment to promote neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalisation.

Big business is directly benefitting, in particular in the fields of agriculture and health, as a result of the foundation’s activities, despite evidence to show that business solutions are not the most effective. For the foundation in particular, there is an overt focus on technological solutions to poverty. While technology should have a role in addressing poverty and inequality, long term solutions require social and economic justice.  This cannot be given by donors in the form of a climate resilient crop or cheaper smartphone, but must be about systemic social, economic and political change – issues not represented in the foundation’s funding priorities.

Perhaps what is most striking about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is that despite its aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices. Global Justice Now is concerned that the foundation’s influence is so pervasive that many actors in international development which would otherwise critique the policy and practice of the foundation are unable to speak out independently as a result of its funding and patronage.

Amyris: From agrofuels to First World cosmetics

It’s either a classic case of bait-and-switch, or else the classic example of the failure of genetic engineers to make the products they promise.

Here at esnl, we’ve devoted lots of coverage to Amyris Inc., the company founded by one of UC Berkeley’s shining stars, “bioengineer” Jay Keasling, celebrated by leading publications and the darling of the liberal media, an “aw shucks’ kid from Nebraska who just happens to be a Ph.D. at a leading university and one of science’s leading openly gay celebrities.

With big bucks from Bill Gates, Amyris and his post grads founded Amyris Inc.

Keasling had hit the limelight when he and his team promised to create the basic front-line antimalarial artemisinin by genetically tweaking yeast cells to extrude precursor molecules.

But by the time they finished and ramped up to industrial-scale production, the drug sold on a non-profit basis for the same price as the conventional drug, meaning that the only economic outcome was the loss of a few thousand Third World farmers who grew the plant from which the drug was derived.

And in Third World malarial hot spots, resistance to the drug has begun to surge.

Amyris, backed by big investments from BP, the Mideast, and Singapore, then announced its plans to market those cost-competitive fuels derived from cellulose left over from sugar cane production and other plant sources, digested by those same microbes with different genetic tweaks.

The University of California held up the company as a sterling examplar of the for-profit spinoffs of Berkeley researchers. Amyris, media reports claimed, was offering the world the hope of clean-burning fuels, green replacements for the world’s dwindling reserves of fossil fuels, even though some of Keasling’s own colleagues were openly skeptical.

Well, forget that. The investments kept coming, but no cost-competitive fuels were ever produced.

Amy Harder covered the new reality for the 21 December print edition of the Wall Street Journal, which we discovered in a dentist’s office, waiting to drive a doped-up friend home after a wisdom tooth extraction.

From her report, which doesn’t appear online:

Amryris, a California-based biotech company, provides oils extracted from yeast for some 400 fragrance and cosmetics brands, including L’Occitane Provence, Elizabeth Arden Inc, and Clarins.

Amyris launched its first direct-to-consumer product earlier this year, a yeast-derived face moisturizer called Biossance. The moisturizer, which Amyris boasts is 100% plant-derived, costs $58 per 1.2-ounce bottle.

And what, you may ask, happened with the Mayris promise to create cost-competitive transportation fuels derived from cellulose digested by those same genetically modified microbes?

A federally funded demonstration project ended two years ago, and, the article reports.

Last year, about one-third of Amyris’s business was related to fuels; today it is 20%, and by next year [company president John] Melo predicts, it will be 5%.

Now he is working to convince investors the firm isn’t what it was a few years ago — an energy company tied to the oil market. “There’s a significant misperception,” he said. “People still think out economics are connected to oil prices.”

So from providing cheap, low emissions fuel for a world facing a climate disaster, Amyris has moved on.

And Keasling, the Wunderkind of UC Berkeley, pocketed millions when the company went public, leaving well before the reality set in.

To quote the Bard of Avon:

O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!

Chart of the day: Resistance to malaria drug

UC Berkeley “bioengineer” Jay Keasling became a media darling after Bill Gates decided to bankroll Amyris [previously], a company that would tweak the genes to the antimalarial drug artemisinin which would be far cheaper than the standard version, refined from plants grown by small farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia.

By the time all was said and done, production of the GMO-derived drug was given to a Big Pharma outfit and produced at a price that was no cheaper than the existing drug.

The net result: Small farmer saw their incomes cut.

The notion of artemisinin as a panacea for the disease, a cause Gates no doubt saw as a way to use his wealth to do good, has been soundly defeated, as indicated in this graphic from the 31 July 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal:

BLOG Artemisinin

World Malaria Day offered some key numbers in April:

BLOG Malaria

Keassling’s company repurposed itself to reengineer the bugs to produce cheap fuel from plant cellulose, fuels more efficient than the ethanol derived from more readily refined plant sugars.

The company went public with much fanfare and media hype, and stock soon rose to $33.85. But as the hype proved just that, shares began to fall, currently selling for $2.13 a share. But Keasling sold out early and walked away with an eight-figure payoff.

And the search for a more effective antimalarial is on.

BP abandons its cellulosic agrofuel ambitions

Yep, the British oil giant’s dream that spawned the largest corporate academic grant in history is dying, reports Bloomberg:

BP Said Planning to Close US Cellulosic Operation by End-1Q 2015

BP Plc (BP/) plans to close down its U.S. cellulosic operation by the end of next year’s first quarter, according to a person familiar with the development.

The business was part of an effort to find ways to produce ethanol from sources such as switchgrass, wood chips and agricultural waste as an alternative to biofuels from food crops. BP Biofuels North America paid $98.3 million in 2010 for Verenium Corp.’s cellulosic biofuels business. The purchase included facilities in Jennings, Louisiana and San Diego.

Cellulosic biofuel is a liquid fuel made by extracting sugars out of grass. At the time of the purchase from Verenium, BP executives said they intended to be a leader in the industry in the U.S.

BP is exploring options to sell the demonstration plant in Jennings, a technology center in San Diego, the Highlands feedstock farm in Florida and some activities in Brazil, Houston or London, spokesman Brett Clanton, said in an e-mail.

The British firm, once known as the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, failed in its bid to leverage the power of American academics here at the University of California at Berkeley in partnership with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to create a  genetically engineered microbe capable of turning plant fiber into fuel at a reasonable cost.

The half-billion-dollar grant, the largest ever given to a public university, created the Energy Bioscience Institute, housed in a taxpayer-funded building in downtown Berkeley, which housed a team of scientists from the university and the oil company.

The pact between the university and the petro giant was negotiated in secret and the deal was announced without consultation with the university’s academic senate, prompting a general furor and student and faculty protests, leading to an eventual submission to the senate, where debate was tightly controlled and the outcome a foregone conclusion.

Leading the charge for the deal was the-then president of the UC Board of Regents and spouse of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rich “Greasy Thumb” Blum, who is currently adding to his millions by selling off the historical legacy of the U.S. Postal Service, for which the CBRE Group, Inc. which he chairs draws a tidy commission.

Back in the days when we reported for the Berkeley Daily Planet, we covered the controversy surrounding the project and senate vote, and were persuaded by the evidence offered by Tad Patzek, then a petroleum geologist on Cal’s faculty, and others such as Cal plant microbiologist Ignacio Chapela that BP’s vision was based on flawed and ecologically dangerous scientific premises. The deal was also riddled with conflicts of interest, and research was underway before the deal was even signed.

Now even BP is giving up on the dream.

Another fuelish dream slowly dies. . .

Some of the biggest boosters of the BP deal have made millions of agrofuel dreams by building up and selling off companies using genetic engineering techniques developed while on the public payroll,

The most notable example is Amyris, which gave Cal “bioengineer” Jay Keasling a nice ten-figure profit when he cashed out. Amyris promised to develop cost efficient fuels far more energy efficient than ethanol.

Good thing for Keasling that he cashed out when he did, since even massive cash infusions from Bill Gates, French oil giant Total [BP’s major European competitor along with Shell], and the Singapore government’s investment company haven’t been able to save the company’s dream.

The only commercial products the company’s been able to produce in commercially viable quantities have been cosmetic oils, not vehicle fuels. . .which may account for which the firm’s shares are currently selling for $2.42, down from the post-IPO high of $33.85.

We really wonder what’s happening inside that massive building in Downtown Berkeley where BP’s scientists toiled away in hopes of fulfilling their oh-so-profitable fuelish dreams. While the deal was heavily covered at the time it went down, it’s been virtual silence ever since.

Now that BP’s abandoned its production dreams in the U.S., hopefully one of the local papers will pick up the lead and follow through.

Was the U.S. behind the Paraguayan coup?

That’s certainly a reasonable suspicion about the strange constitutional coup that two weeks ago overthrew President Fernando Lupo. And if that’s the case, the reason becomes abundantly clear in a story from Mexico City’s La Jornada via a translation at Aletho News:

A group of US generals reportedly visited Paraguay for a meeting with legislators on June 22 to discuss the possibility of building a military base in the Chaco region, which borders on Bolivia in western Paraguay. The meeting coincided with the Congress’s sudden impeachment the same day of left-leaning president Fernando Lugo, who at times has opposed a US military presence in the country. In 2009 Lugo cancelled maneuvers that the US Southern Command was planning to hold in Paraguay in 2010 as part of its “New Horizons” program.

More bases in the Chaco are “necessary,” rightwing deputy José López Chávez, who presides over the Chamber of Deputies’ Committee on Defense, said in a radio interview. Bolivia, governed by socialist president Evo Morales, “constitutes a threat for Paraguay, due to the arms race it’s developing,” according to López Chávez. Bolivia and Paraguay fought a war over the sparsely populated Chaco from 1932 to 1935, the last major war over territory in South America.

The US has been pushing recently to set up military bases in the Southern Cone, including one in Chile and one in Argentina’s northeastern Chaco province, which is close to the Paraguayan Chaco, although it doesn’t share a border with Paraguay [see Update #1129]. Unidentified military sources say that the US has already built infrastructure for its own troops in Paraguayan army installations near the country’s borders with Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil; for example, an installation in Mariscal Estigarribia, some 250 km from Bolivia, has a runway almost 3.8 km long, in a country with a very limited air force.

Now consider a 21 September 2009 SECRET/NOFORN diplomatic cable from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the American embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay referring to U.S. Special Forces training operation then underway in the country:

One year into office, President Lugo is confronted by the reality of governing with a fractured ruling coalition, an antagonistic Congress, and entrenched systemic corruption. Lugo has proven resilient, and thus far has weathered deliberate destabilization efforts that included a wave of small explosive devices and bomb threats in Asuncion. Nevertheless, rumors of coup-plotting persist along with a continual erosion of Lugo’s political capital. Given the current environment and the absence of written status protections for all DoD personnel in Paraguay, their presence poses a potential political risk. At any point, those who oppose Lugo or merely wish to weaken his ties to the United States may publicly raise the issue of U.S. forces in Paraguay and speculate about their role in a way that undercuts U.S. interests. In addition, there is a potential personal risk to U.S. forces on training missions in Paraguay without the benefit of status protections or equivalent.

Then consider this excerpt from another cable, a SECRET dispatch sent to Washington on 2 June 2008 by Deputy Chief of Mission Michael J. Fitzpatrick in Asuncion:

Sensitive reporting indicates that some members of Lugo’s inner circle have ties to representatives of Venezuelan President Chavez. These Lugo insiders claim that he supports Chavez’ plans for Latin America; Lugo has stated publicly and privately (to Embassy officials) that he will not align himself with Chavez. Lugo volunteered to OAS chief of electoral mission (and former Colombia Foreign Minister) Maria Emma Mejia early April 21 that while Chavez was the first president to congratulate him April 20, he does not know Chavez and was delighted that the U.S. Ambassador was in fact the first caller to congratulate him and to offer support for his government. One party in Lugo’s coalition, the P-MAS (Paraguayan Movement towards Socialism), receives Venezuelan financial support.

And here’s an excerpt from another cable, a SECRET/NOFORN 18 June 2007 dispatch from Ambassador Craig Kelly in Santiago, Chile:

Our growing economic relationship with the pragmatic leftist government in Uruguay puts the lie to the claim that greater trade and investment with the U.S. is tantamount to betrayal of local populations. This is critical because poor countries, like Uruguay, are vulnerable not so much to Chavez’s ideology but to his petrobolivars. We need to draw attention to and build on these success stories borne out of engagement with the U.S., as alternatives to Chavez’ vision of a region cut off from the U.S. Even Paraguay’s leftist priest-turned presidential candidate Fernando Lugo has stated he is closer to Bachelet or Lula than to Chavez.

Now let’s add another ingredient to the mix: Genetically modified soybeans peddled by American companies, as noted in an 18 June 2008 cable from Economics/Political Chief James Story at the U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo: and titled U.S. SCIENTISTS VISIT BRAZIL FOR MOU ON BIOFUELS:

With peasant farmers threatening land invasions to demand land reform and end perceived environmental abuses, Paraguay’s soybean producers last month staged a two-day demonstration intended to call the government’s attention to rural turmoil. Hundreds of medium- and large-scale soy producers parked their tractors on Dec. 15 and 16 along the sides of the roads in 13 departments, creating a so-called “tractorazo”, underscoring the importance of peasant labor to agricultural production. The protest by soy producers comes after months of marches on Asuncisn and threats of land invasion by thousands of small and landless peasants, or campesinos, demanding agrarian reform and an end to the spraying of toxic agro-chemicals. Handling the tensions that fueled it marks a key test for President Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who took office Aug.15.

Incidentally, the same cable also mention Amyris, the UC Berkeley-spawned and Bill Gates-enabled genetic engineering company that hopes to make a fortune off of using GM bugs to harvest fuel from plants.

A final bit of context

The so-called constitutional coup that led to Lugo’s ouster followed a bloody confrontation between peasants and police at the site of a massive agricultural plantation the peasants claimed had been illegally seized by a leading supporter of the opposition Colorado party.

So we’re getting the picture of a nominally leftist leader with uncomfortable relations with both an ambitious American military and the peasants’ demand for land reform and their deep dislike of American agribusiness and its monopoly on seeds.

Forgive us if we suspect some deep politics at work, favoring both the Pentagon and global corporations like Monsanto which provide the patented seeds to the latifundistas.

Congress torpedoes Navy, Pentagon agrofuel plans

Both houses have approved legislation that blocks the Navy from buying agrofuels — petroleum substitutes derived from plants, typically grown on industrial Third World plantations — unless they cost no more than conventional fuels.

Their action also bars the Pentagon from funding agrofuel refineries, a major blow to the Obama administration embrace of plant-based fuels, driven largely by Energy Secretary Steve Chu.

It was Chu who, during his tenure as head of the Alwrence Berkeley National Laboratory, played a leading role in winning UC Berkeley that $500 million BP agrofuel research grant and shifted research at the Department of Energy lab toward agrofuel research.

The Pentagon’s agrofuel efforts were initially shaped by Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, the same general also responsible for drafting plans for Africom, the Pentagon’s command for controlling the continent which has seen an ongoing wave of land acquisitions by agofuel corporations.

Just how important is the Pentagon’s agrofuel agenda? Swell, consider one simple fact: The world’s largest single consumer of oil is the U.S. military.

Oh, and the Pentagon’s biggest oil supplier? That would be BP.

The story from Noah Shachtman, writing at Wired’s Danger Room:

The Navy’s ambitious renewable energy plans aren’t sunk quite yet. But they took a major hit Thursday, when the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to all-but-ban the military from buying alternative fuels.

The House Armed Services Committee passed a similar measure earlier this month. But the House is controlled by Republicans, who are generally skeptical of alternative energy efforts. Democrats are in charge of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And if anything, the Senate’s alt-fuel prohibition goes even further than the House’s. If it becomes law, if would not only sink the Navy’s attempt to sail a “Great Green Fleet,” powered largely by biofuels. It would also sabotage a half-billion dollar program to shore up a tottering biofuels industry.

Like their counterparts in the House, senators prohibited the Pentagon from buying renewable fuels that are more expensive than traditional ones — a standard that biofuels many never meet. In addition, the committee blocked the Defense Department from helping build biofuel refineries unless “specifically authorized by law” – just as the Navy was set to pour $170 million into an effort with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to do precisely that.


Like their counterparts in the House, senators prohibited the Pentagon from buying renewable fuels that are more expensive than traditional ones — a standard that biofuels may never meet. In addition, the committee blocked the Defense Department from helping build biofuel refineries unless “specifically authorized by law” – just as the Navy was set to pour $170 million into an effort with the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to do precisely that.

Read the rest.

What might the impact of the Congressional action be?

Consider the case of Amyris, the local company started by Chu protégé and former employee Jay Keasling with the help of some Bill Gates money.

Amyris hopes to make synfuel with the help of genetically engineered microbes, but the diesel fuel they’ve churned out costs a whopping $29 a gallon, no sale under the pending legislation.

If the measure makes it into law, we can expect a major shakeup in the already rickety agrofuel industry.

Amyris, which has been struggling with low stock prices since peaking last year at $33.85, only to fall to $1.57 last week, has managed to make it back up to $2.65 as we write, slightly about the company’s liquidation price, if you don’t factor in that $150 million or more they’d have to pay their major investor if it all falls apart.

Amyris shares up again on investment news

Stock of the genetic engineering outfit started by UC Berkeley “genetic engineer” Jay Keasling with Bill Gates money have been edging up from their record low of 18 May.

When we reported Monday that “green” tech investment banker and Amyris board member John Doerr had bought more shares of Amyris, the SEC announcement of a second major buyer and two smaller ones who pocketed an equal value of shares hadn’t made it online.

But now the form is up, and the buyer of the same number of shares as Doerr [211,864 shares for $499,999] fellow Amyris board member Arthur D. Levinson, who chairs Genetech as well as Apple, where he replaced the Steve Jobs in November.

Smaller buys were made by two other board members, venture capitalist and former BP executive Ralph Alexander [21,186 shares, $49,999], and Google CFO and Senior Vice President Patrick Pichette [20,000 shares, $47,200].

A tagline on Seeking Alpha succinctly describes the reaction: A private placement is boosting shres [sic] of Amyris.

Stock rose on Monday’s news, and shares continued up today, closing at $2.36, up from the day’s opening of $2.12.

That’s up almost 80 cents from Friday’s all-time low, but there’s a way to go before it hits last year’s high. That would be $33.85.