When a company commercializes a building-block molecule with dozens, if not hundreds, of potential commercial uses, competition is bound to arrive sooner or later. When it comes to farnesene production, that competition may show up sooner than Amyris (NASDAQ:AMRS) investors would like. Synthetic biology leader Intrexon (NYSE:XON) recently announced production of farnesene from methane in lab demonstrations. The ultimate goal is to capitalize on the country's growing stockpiles of cheap natural gas and efficient next-generation industrial processes for separating syngas to develop an alternative carbon source to sugar's current dominance as a feedstock.
Competition and molecular overlap is cropping up across the industrial biotechnology sector of the synthetic biology industry. While molecules and products may be considered more valuable when lacking quality competition, some markets are so large that multiple suppliers -- and partners such as Total (NYSE:TOT) -- will be necessary to ensure synthetic biology reaches its full potential. Should Amyris investors fear Intrexon?
Farnesene's market potential is a big deal
Amyris has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and commercialize molecules in the isoprenoid pathway. That includes anti-malarial drug compound artemisinic acid; isoprene (natural rubber) being developed with Michelin; muconic acid; numerous flavor, fragrance, and cosmetic molecules; and farnesene.
As it turns out, there are many uses for the 15 carbon atoms in one farnesene molecule. For instance, Amyris and Total can convert farnesene into farnesane for use in diesel and jet fuel, while other partners can use it to develop industrial lubricants. Amyris can convert farnesene into cosmetic molecules such as the high-value molecule squalane, which is essentially two farnesene molecules bonded together. Flavors and fragrances can even be derived from farnesene -- something that Japanese flavor and fragrance company Takasago seeks to do.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that other companies are trying to produce farnesene. Amyris has bolted to a big lead in development, but Intrexon thinks it can serve the markets with a radically different approach.
Intrexon's bold plans
In April Intrexon announced the creation of Intrexon Energy Partners, or IEP, to develop and commercialize high-value fuels and chemicals from natural-gas feedstocks (although Intrexon only needs the methane component). How do you do that? The company is engineering a suite of methanotrophs, or organisms that consume methane, to convert methane into higher-value chemicals. Isobutanol was the first commercial target announced, but investors can now add farnesene to the list.
I'm not convinced the economics support using natural gas as a feedstock (its price has increased 20% in the last year alone!), but production could be optimized biologically or by instead using syngas from industrial processes. Producing it at costs economical for fuel production will be especially challenging. Consider that Amyris and Total produce farnesene at a cost just south of $3.50 per liter. While that number will fall considerably as strains are improved with Total's deep pockets and larger facilities are utilized, commodity fuel production will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. Other applications, such as lubricants, rubber additives, and cosmetics, can be profitably produced today.
However, Intrexon isn't necessarily targeting Amyris. When Amyris is courting sugar producers to sweeten the prospects of its commercial deployment and add production capacity, Intrexon will be convincing natural-gas suppliers and syngas producers of the benefits of its platform. Sure, the two companies will share the intermediate and end markets for farnesene, but they won't compete for carbon -- the most important input and the largest determination of cost of a final product. Instead, Intrexon will compete with less efficient gas-to-liquid processes.
What does it mean for Amyris?
If Intrexon does eventually commercialize a methanotrophic platform for producing farnesene from methane, I don't see it having any effect on the development plans of Amyris and Total. While the two companies are targeting the same molecule, they are aiming for drastically different sources of carbon. Both will sell farnesene into the same intermediate and end markets, but it is much too early to begin comparing production costs: Amyris has yet to optimize its process or move to a larger facility and Intrexon is still at lab scale. It is also worth considering that multiple farnesene producers makes for a bigger, more developed market, which helps all players. For now, this is something investors will want to keep an eye on, but it shouldn't affect your investing decision just yet.
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Maxx Chatsko owns shares of Amyris. Check out his personal portfolio, CAPS page, previous writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for SynBioBeta to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.
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