I first became aware of starch-based plastics in 2005 when I encountered tiny Cereplast's deal to provide disposable plasticware for ARAMARK, the folks that run the food service at ball games. The idea was nice, but the company was so tiny and speculative that I shelved it as an investment possibility.
Jack Uldrich's piece on biodegradable plastics rekindled my interest, and I've been following the major players in the space more carefully ever since. Two recent news items stand out.
You're watching the German people's court
Metabolix (Nasdaq: MBLX ) is a company that uses bacteria to generate sugar-based plastics. The company, which IPO'd in November, relies on technology licensed from MIT. Other MIT startups range from Akamai (Nasdaq: AKAM ) to Acusphere to American Superconductor (Nasdaq: AMSC ) .
A key test for any IP-heavy business is the patent litigation process. Metabolix faced just such a test this month in Germany, where a Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) subsidiary challenged Metabolix's patent in court. The suit was dismissed. A great relief to the company, no doubt, but this is probably just the first of many court battles that Metabolix will face as a high-profile public company.
Taking the Petro out of Petrochemical
Top Brazilian petrochemical firm Braskem (NYSE: BAK ) made headlines on Thursday with its announcement of a 100% renewable polyethylene. Naturally, this competing product is derived from ethanol, Brazil's specialty. It won't be produced in commercial quantities until late 2009 at the earliest.
Braskem is an interesting entrant; it's both large enough and experienced enough to roll out its product without the help of a partner. In contrast, Cereplast is working with an Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) subsidiary, while Metabolix is hitched to Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM ) . The problem with the Metabolix-ADM joint venture, dubbed Telles, is that while ADM makes perfect sense as a feedstock supplier, it's not a plastics company. Plastics experience, combined with access to a cheap sugar cane-derived feedstock, could put Braskem out in front of the pack, especially if it hits its production target, which is a full four times that of Telles' 110 million-pound goal. This contest ought to sustain our interest for years to come.