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Craig Venter: Saving the Planet with Genomics

venter1.jpgJ. Craig Venter says he expects biology to largely replace what has been created by the oil industry. If anyone can comfortably make a statement like that to a room full of venture capitalists, it’s Venter. The genomics guru, who has had his own genome sequenced and has a new memoir out he’s looking to plug, detailed his vision for “designing and synthesizing life” and its applications for energy to a group of VCs down on Sand Hill Road on Tuesday.

Venter explained his genome sequencing work, which has been his focus for the past 15 years, as “bringing biology into a digital world.” He previously jump-started the race to produce the first full transcription of a human genome, and his team is now close to creating the first new artificial life form by building a synthetic chromosome and inserting it into a living bacterial cell.

How does all this apply to clean tech? Venter’s startup, Synthetic Genomics, is commercializing the research to create biofuels, which Venter says are far better — more energy-efficient, more hardy, and easier to blend in the existing fuel system — than traditional biofuels ethanol and butanol.

During his speech on Tuesday, Venter gave more details about the startup’s plans. Venter said the company’s bio jet fuel will be going through extensive testing over the next 12 to 18 months as the company readies itself to scale up for production.

On getting ready to produce large amounts of the fuel, Venter said: “We don’t take production lightly. Billions of barrels [of oil] is a huge number to try to match.” To produce enough of the fuel, Venter said they are planning on a distributed system that would consist of anywhere from 100,000 to a million bioreactors around the country.

It’s ambitious, for sure, but the startup is backed by high-profile VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, along with other private investors. As for the additional investors, Venter said the majority of them actually came from outside of the U.S., and were looking for this technology to benefit entire economies.

Steve Jurvetson introduced Venter to the luncheon crowd and later on Venter said that, though he himself had bad experiences with venture capitalists in the past, the new partnership was going well. Well, a luncheon for venture capitalists at the Quadrus Conference Center is probably not the best place to air grievances anyway.

What resonated loud and clear throughout the talk was that Venter, one of the most influential scientists of our age — the New York Times once referred to him as the Larry Ellison of the lab, the Richard Branson of biology — is now devoting all of his efforts to the carbon problem. Venter said he formed Synthetic Genomics to help turn around the rapidly rising amount of carbon emissions.

“We are playing Russian roulette with our planet…Some biological processes you can’t recover from. I’m hoping that is not the case and that we can reverse this.”