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Posted: August 17, 2009

Small biz tech-startup: OPX Biotechnologies Inc.

A "new to the world" product could tap into the multibillion-dollar world markets of acrylic acid and diesel

INITIAL LIGHT BULB:

While earning his Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder from 2000 to 2005, Michael Lynch developed a better way to engineer microbes to create alternative sources of fuels and industrial chemicals.

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Michael Lynch and Charles Eggert

In 2006, Lynch started a company, OPX Biotechnologies, and successfully raised three rounds of financing after demonstrating the concept’s viability. The company subsequently recruited CEO Charles Eggert, a 30-year veteran of the chemical industries, in September 2008.

“What we’re doing with the technology is optimizing these microbes so they can produce the target product very rapidly and at high yield and therefore low cost,” Eggert says. “And the platform is very flexible and versatile, so it can be applied to multiple end products from multiple raw materials. That’s the beauty and power of the company.”

The company is now more than 30 employees strong, with founder Lynch as chief scientific officer.

IN A NUTSHELL:

The company’s core technology is the OPX EDGE (Efficiency Directed Genome Engineering) Platform. EDGE allows Lynch and the OPX team to modify microbes currently used in industrial processes to more efficiently produce a target chemical or fuel.

“We make millions of genetic changes to an organism simultaneously, then we measure the effect of those changes in a single experiment,” Lynch says. “We usually talk about an analogy that’s very apt for Boulder, Colorado: It’s like taking a cyclist and making millions of minor changes and having a race and measuring the time for every change we make.” This “massively parallel” methodology represents a quantum leap in genetic engineering that is thousands of times faster than traditional processes.

OPX’s first two targets are bioacrylics and biodiesel fuel. Future targets will include other biochemicals and biofuels. “In general, specialty chemical markets represent higher value and higher profit margin than fuel applications,” Eggert says. “Within the specialty chemical space, acrylic is attractive because it’s a large market and it has been growing, with long-term growth rates of 4 percent a year. Any new plants we’d bring in with the new route of bioproduction would fit right in with that growth.”

OPX’s bioacrylic initiative will be in the pilot stage in 2010, Lynch says, and the company hopes to build a demonstration facility in 2011. The strain development of the biodiesel microbe is about a year behind the company’s bioacrylic initiative. By 2013, Eggert hopes to have inked a deal with a partner and open the world’s first commercial bioacrylic plant.

THE MARKET:
Acrylic acid is a $10 billion annual market worldwide; diesel is on the order of $500 billion. Bioacrylic “is new to the world,” Eggert says. “We knew from the technology and the application of the technology that we could produce a product at a low cost, even lower than petroleum-based acrylic.”

FINANCING:
After launching with $1 million in seed capital in 2006, OPX Biotechnologies closed funding rounds in October 2007 and April 2008 of $1.3 million and $2.6 million, respectively, before closing on an impressive $17.5 million round this March. Investors included holdovers Mohr Davidow and new OPX investors Braemar Energy Ventures and the Denver-based Altira Group. The last round was “raised in a very challenging environment,” Eggert says. It will fund the next 24 months of operations as OPX scales up the bioacrylic production process.

Where: Boulder | Founded: 2006 | www.opxbiotechnologies.com

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