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The race to bring pond scum to fuel tanks has acquired high stakes in recent years, with venture capitalists, federal agencies and legacy oil companies pouring millions of dollars into the technology. Today ExxonMobil (s XOM) and startup Synthetic Genomics announced one of the biggest deals yet: more than $600 million for a 5-6-year algae biofuels development program, including more than $300 million to be invested into the startup.
While today’s project does not represent the largest algae deal to date (Algenol is building a plant in Mexico reportedly worth $850 million, as we’ve noted in the chart below), it is one of the biggest commitments so far from the oil industry — which has been placing a growing pile of chips on algae for its potential to work with existing infrastructure for fossil fuels (e.g., pipelines, oil refineries).
The numbers, of course, don’t tell the whole story. Look at GreenFuel Technologies, a startup that won big investments and a $92 million algae farm project in Spain, but ended up laying off staff and ultimately shutting down earlier this year. Activity in the nascent algae fuel sector also includes more than a few deals whose amounts have not been disclosed, but which may hold significance for the industry over time. For example, Synthetic Genomics received an early investment from BP (meant to support one of the first comprehensive genomic studies of microbial populations in various hydrocarbons, and ultimately lead to processes for making biofuels). While we can’t compare the size of that investment to the others in our chart, it may have gone a long way to help the company win today’s massive deal with ExxonMobil. And while Royal Dutch Shell and algae-to-fuel startup HR Biopetroleum have not been forthcoming with details about the financing for their 2-year-old joint venture, Cellana, having the heft of Shell’s budget and resources behind it could make Cellana a serious contender against smaller startups.
For the chart below, we looked to include the largest sources of funding flowing into the algae sector, including equity investments, government grants and contracts, joint ventures, strategic alliances and licensing deals:
|Algenol Biofuels, Sonora Fields
|Algenol has a licensing agreement with Sonora Fields (a wholly owned subsidiary of Mexican-owned BioFields) for a project in Mexico that will deliver a billion gallons of fuel a year. More »|
|Synthetic Genomics, ExxonMobil
|ExxonMobil plans to invest more than $300 million in Synthetic Genomics as part of a larger $600 million collaborative R&D program for developing and commercializing transportation fuel from photosynthetic algae. More »|
|Sapphire Energy, venture capital
|Sapphire has raised venture capital from high-profile investors including Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment, ARCH Venture Partners and Venrock to help it squeeze green crude from algae for high-octane fuels. More »|
|Solazyme, venture capital
|Solazyme’s latest round (Series C, $7M) brings the startup’s total funds to $76 million and will be used for commercialization of its technology: genetically engineered algal strains grown in fermentation tanks, fed sugar instead of sunlight, and using existing industrial equipment to extract the oil.|
|General Atomics, Department of Defense
|General Atomics began leading a team of university and industrial partners in a 36-month program starting in January 2009 to “examine all aspects” of the algae-to-jet-fuel production process under the Defense Adanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. More »|
|SAIC, Department of Defense
|SAIC won a defense contract earlier this year to develop a $3-a-gallon algae-derived fuel for military jets. The funds come under a biofuels program in DARPA More »|
|Center for Advanced Biofuel Systems, Department of Energy
|The DOE will award $2 million to $5 million each year for five years to this St. Louis lab as part of the The Energy Frontier Research Center Awards program. More »|
|C2B2, Conoco Philips
|The Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels (C2B2), part of the joint venture created by the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, the Colorado School of Mines and NREL, won sponsorship from Conoco to develop transportation fuels from biomass, starting with algae. More »|