An interview with John Melo, Ceo of Amyris: “What’s good for the planet should be good for business and we are making this a reality”

John Melo, President & Ceo of Amyris
John Melo, President & Ceo of Amyris

“I expect 30% of jet fuel to be renewable by 2030 and we hope to have at least 1/3 of this market share”. John Melo talks to Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview the President & Ceo of Amyris, the California-based company which has been named the #1 company in the 50 Hottest Companies in the Advanced Bioeconomy (“Hot 50”) contest, talks about his company and the bioeconomy, the role played by the U.S. government and the public opinion. “To me – Melo says – ecology and economy must go together. Producing less CO2 emissions should cost less, not more. When this happens ecology and climate are working in the same direction. What’s good for the planet should be good for business and we are making this a reality”.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Mr Melo, with its partner Total, Amyris is paving the way for a new era for the aviation industry by providing a drop-in, low carbon jet fuel solution that will support the sustainability and environmental goals set by the industry. On May 29, Cathay Pacific commenced a two-year program of flights from Toulouse to Hong Kong using your renewable jet fuel. How does this renewable jet fuel meet the criteria in the definitive standard for use in commercial aviation?

The Amyris-Total BioJet exceeds the performance of petroleum based Jet A with higher energy density and lower temperature tolerance. It’s a clear Jet fuel that has 80% lower co2 emissions and has 0 sulfur. This is the best performing Renewable Jet fuel available today and, with our expanded program for the next 5 year with Total, we will reach price parity with petroleum at $75/bbl equivalent of petroleum by 2021.

How many companies are using your renewable jet fuel? From your point of view, is the future of the aviation industry bio-based?

We have 5 airlines currently using our fuel with some level of frequency (weekly flights, new aircraft deliveries or for specific awareness raising opportunities) and we expect to double this over the next 12 months. I expect 30% of jet fuel to be renewable by 2030 and we hope to have at least 1/3 of this market share.

Amyris is one of the most dynamic bioeconomy companies. Last May you signed a Memorandum of Understanding with South Korea-based CJ CheilJedang Corporation. Last June you signed a new partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks. Could you give us some details regarding these two agreements?

We need more production capacity to support the growing demand of our Farnesene business. This business will represent about 50% of our revenue by 2020 and 80% of our production volume ($200M in annual sales and about 80kTons of material) and we need a world class fermentation partner that wants to grow with us. CJ Bio is one of the world’s largest fermentation companies and they have significant excess capacity. We can meet a need they have by providing access to Farnesene for them to produce at their current facilities and they can provide a significant help for us by producing to meet our demand with much lower new capital invested. This is a win/win partnership where we don’t invest capital and they get a % of the margin we make on Farnesene from the specific applications they produce for. These applications will include Farnesene for Lubricant base oil for our Novvi J/V and also Farnesene for Polymers for the partnership with Kuraray that supports the tire industry.

The partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks we believe is transformational for the world. With our combined technical capacity and knowledge, we will be able reach industrial scale with 20 new organisms over the next 3 years that make the leading ingredients into several large and growing industries. This compares to our 5 molecules in 5 years and we are the world leaders at scaling up highly engineered organisms for the production of key ingredients. They have excellent skills to help us find the best enzymes, they have access to 60% of the worlds DNA production for synthetic engineering and they have over 100 scientists that will all be working to increase our capacity and accelerate the number of products that either of us could bring to market individually. By combining our capability we’ve created the “Google” of Synthetic Biology – the ability to code organisms for them to produce chemicals that are better performing than petroleum, animal or plant derived chemistry.

Amyris has been named the #1 company in the 50 Hottest Companies in the Advanced Bioeconomy (“Hot 50”) contest. As far as you’re concerned, what does it means to be an advanced bioeconomy company?

A company that is producing and commercializing renewable products from a sustainable feedstock. An example of companies in this field are DuPont with their bioproducts division (the Genencor business they acquired when they purchased Danisco).

Your company is based in California, USA. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the bioeconomy in the US?

The U.S. has the leading research in the world supporting the bioeconomy and has the most significant support of this field from both the government (DOE, DARPA, US Government Procurement) and leading universities (UC Berkeley, MIT, Stanford and many other US universities). The U.S. also has the best access to venture capital (most intense in Silicon Valley), great public markets to support technology innovation (NASDAQ and now NYSE) and growth funding from the leading private equity firms in the world. The negatives around the U.S. are industrial partners/strategic partners – most of our partners are foreign companies (equally split between European and Asian). This is mostly driven by the low cost Natural Gas feedstock available in the U.S. and the significant resources available to U.S. companies. It’s also because of the lower level commitment most U.S. companies have to climate change. When you don’t care about making the planet better, you have access to abundant, low-cost feedstock and your only focus is the next quarter financial results you don’t need to support the bioeconomy.

Without the people on board, it’s really difficult to deploy across the board everything you need to do to really de-carbonize. What is the perception of the bioeconomy by the public opinion in the U.S.? Are there plans for education and training?

This is a fundamental issue. I find this a bigger issue in the U.S. than most developed places in the world. We do need significant education along with products that perform better and are competitively priced. This is our mission; we want 1 billion consumers using ingredients made by Amyris by 2020 (we currently have 150 million) – this is how we will accelerate adoption by consumers. It requires education supported by great products that become the obvious choice. The U.S. consumer will not make sacrifices for a better planet. They will only buy what they believe is good for them and doesn’t cost more. They perceive that bioproducts cost more and perform worse than their current materials.

The central questions of the 21st century are not whether climate change is coming, how strongly the world population is growing and to which extent the emission of fossil carbon has to be lowered, but how economy and society will be able to best meet these developments and how research and innovation funding contributes towards this. From your point of view, how is it possible to bring ecology and economy together?

To me ecology and economy must go together. Technology is the bridge. We see this today in Solar, we will see it in battery technology within the next 24 months and you will have this in bio products for the world’s largest markets (fuel) by 2021. Producing less CO2 emissions should cost less, not more. When this happens ecology and climate are working in the same direction. What’s good for the planet should be good for business and we are making this a reality.

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