Tom Konrad Ph.D., CFA
Tom Konrad Ph.D., CFA
“I mean, man, whither goest thou? Whither goest thou,
America, in thy shiny car in the night?” “Whither goest thou?”
echoed Dean with his mouth open. We sat and didn’t know what to
say; there was nothing to talk about any more. The only thing to
do was go.”
— Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Amyris experienced last month what CEO John Melo referred to as
“our fastest product start”, and you might wonder, was it a fuel,
a chemical, a fragrance, a flavor, a biotech service platform?
None to all of the above. It’s a product called Muck Daddy, a
high performance, fast-acting hand cleanser. And if the brand
sounds just a little bit like Puff Daddy, that’s perfectly OK.
no better example than the artist known variously as Sean Combs,
Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Sean John, and more recently Swag, to
help us understand what a sustainable biotech company like Amyris
is all about.
When I first heard of Sean Combs, it was in his years as founder
of Bad Boy Records, an influential East Coast rap label that was
home for Biggie Smalls (The Notorious B.I.G). I was working out of
the West Coast in the mid 90s, booking some hip hop acts for AOL
Live! sessions — the likes of Coolio, Cypress Hill and
Then, he was Puffy, and I’ve kept tabs on him since; he came
forward as a performer in 1997. Daddy, Diddy, Swag — it takes a
lot of identity and costume changes to survive and thrive in the
world of hip-hop. Underneath, there was always the artist and the
Back to biotechnology. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of
identities for Amyris, too. The changes and re-directions annoyed
some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of
It’s fair to say that people had just got the idea of what Amyris
Biotechnologies was all about, when suddenly it became Amyris,
Inc. There was subsidiary called Amyris Fuels, then there was an
announcement that Amyris was exiting fuels.
There was Amyris, the Biofene company. Amyris and the ‘Fene
economy. Just when everyone figured out what ‘Fene was, there was
an announcement that Amyris would no longer focus exclusively on
farnesene. (‘Fene appears to be the DJ identity of biofene or
farnesene, though Puff Fene or P. Fene might have had more
Somewhere in there we had Novvi, the Amyris-Cosan JV for
lubricants and high-performance oils. Then there was Amyris,
makers of Biossance cosmetics. There was the Amyris µPharm
discovery and production platform, announced this year, which
sounded an awful like the Amyris Biotechnologies of old.
And we had the Paraiso plant, until it was the Brotas plant, and
we had the Usina San Martinho JV to build more capacity, until we
didn’t. It takes a lot of identity and costume changes to survive
and thrive in the world of the advanced bioeconomy. Underneath,
there were always the artists and the business minds.
So, you get the idea. There have been more Amyris identities than
probably Mickey Rooney had marriages. But it never occurred to me,
then or now, that the changes were a weakness. Change, that’s
Amyris; the company is as hard to pin down as Madonna or Bob
Dylan, and though occasionally Amyris is as popular on Wall Street
as when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965,
it’s the stuff of longevity: change that is, when the change is
In the Digest Universe, we place the company as a pure
Design-Build-Test-Learn velocity player, one of the handful of
Moore’s Law companies that just gets faster and faster and more
If you walk through the Amyris labs in Emeryville, the first
thing that strikes you is the shrinking footprint of technology
and the people. Not that they have fewer people, or fewer
machines. But the machines are immensely smaller and the people do
more interesting things. Things you take for granted even in
Big-Ticket, High-Priesthood academic labs — like, lots of
undergrad and grad students moving a lot of stuff around in a
physical way, the old analog assay. It’s like, gone.
What we see are designs scaled up to 200 liters in the lab and
related pilot units, then transferred to Brotas, in 1000X
Just a few years back, Aymris transferred a tremendous amount of
capital, hope, and R&D from demo-scale to full-scale at
Brotas, and the scale-up stumbled, spectacularly. There was the
hype, then the peril, right out of Apollo 13. “Emeryville,
we have a problem.”
In this case, as the yeast were multiplied up to fill the big
fermenters, they evolved slightly in each duplication step, 60 in
all. Now, keep in mind that these organisms really weren’t
designed by Nature to make this much farnesene. So, the mutations
generally were in the direction of reducing farnesene production,
and translating that carbon back into organism growth. The
low-growth mutations would rapidly take over the fermenter. Amyris
got day 1, day 2, day 3 normal, day 4 master alarms going off
everywhere as the production dropped off.
So, Design-Build-Test-Learn until they found a way to suppress
the growth of the mutations, by denying an amino acid (associated
with the farnesene pathway) vital to organism growth. Eventually,
problem solved. And the fast pace of 2011’s desperate innovation
has become table stakes at Amyris 2015, or Diddy Amyris, or Amyris
5.0, or what you will.
Design the code, load the DNA, execute it into yeast, 120,000
permutations a month, of which 118,000 are random evolutions based
around the 2000 designed projects. The focus? The search for
As R&D Director Joel Cherry put it, “you can chase an
enormous number of interesting scientific targets, most of which
are valid and all of them have proponents. But at the end of the
day, we needed to have focus, and for me it is a very simple
equation. We buy sugar and we make product, and that makes yield
the most important factor. So we focused on yield.”
To the extent today that the production organism has 80,000 new
DNA base pairs, and 40,000 of the old ones knocked out — out of
12,000,000 base pairs in the original DNA. That’s around a 1%
variation in around 10 years. And keep in mind, this is not the
rate of mutation — this is the rate at which changes have become a
fixed part of the production organisms. Successful evolutions, if
Contrast that with the molecular clock hypothesis, which suggests
that two bird species, to give an example, diverge at a rate of 1%
per 500,000 years. 1% in 10 years, vs 1% in 500,000 years. At the
rate Amyris is evolving its farnesene code, it would have evolved
by a factor greater than the genetic difference between humans and
chimpanzees, in less than 50 years.
Put another way, in about 1000 years, you could, extrapolating
the math in ways that will surely get the Digest a nastygram from
somewhere, replay the entire evolution of life on earth. At the
current rate. Which is speeding up. Which is why working at Amyris
has to be more interesting than working at the most cutting-edge
Let’s take it a step further for a second. Let’s apply some
Moore’s Law metrics to the speed of invention, at a genetic level.
Let’s say the pace at which we can identify and deploy a new gene
halves every two years. Is that possible? I don’t know. To be
honest, here in Digestville we can’t tell you what the oil price
will be tomorrow, exactly and for sure. Looking down the road 20
years in the world of genetic development, that’s about as easy as
understanding the conditions beyond the event horizon of a black
One thing we do know. The cost of a basic decoding of a genome
is, in fact, coming down even faster than the velocity of Moore’s
Law. So, it’s speculative but not without foundation.
In the basic math of our scenario, the entirety of the evolution
of life on earth could be played out in a lab, in some number of
years, in a matter of seconds.
Which is to say, evolution of target organisms, conducted
entirely by robots, controlled by algorithms written by
semi-sentient computers, running on processing schemes controlled
by other semi-sentient computers. That is to say, computers that
design-build-test-learn, with the emphasis on learning. Controlled
in turn by humans, who generally are focused on guiding computer
targets based on products of interest, and in charge also of
designing and improving the process by which computers learn.
Consider that a time will come when you gladly take a daily
capsule, which contains daily updates for your body — new defenses
against discovered ills, or potential threats — based on scans
delivered by advanced imaging and received and processed by these
innovative biological engines. You’ll receive the cure before you
show the symptom.
Over at Amyris, you’ll see it happening now, if you look
carefully enough. Not just at the plastic bottles of Muck Daddy,
the Biossance creams, the flasks of renewable diesel, or the 140
million treatments for malaria by Sanofi using the underlying
technology upon which Amyris is based.
Instead, look at the robotics, they’re spreading. The pace, which
is quickening. The sense of mission, which has not diminished. For
sure, we don’t see the enthusiasm on Wall Street.
But keep in mind, these are the guys who spent 20 years not
figuring out Bernard Madoff — don’t be put off by the high
salaries and flashy suits, Wall Street minds are a mile wide and a
millimeter thick, and most of the brain mass there is devoted to
guessing when the Fed will move on interest rates.
Instead, look not to Wall Street, or even Main Street, but look
at Product Street. Firmenich, for example. No one’s partnering
with Amyris for skin cream formula, or flavorings. They could come
up with them in their own labs. They are partnering with Amyris
for speed, pure velocity. When you crush timelines, products that
were once in their “we can’t ever” fall over the corporate hurdle
into the Department of Let’s Get Going.
That’s why Amyris, which once pinned all its hopes on Farnesene,
has become instead the home of Farnesene and Friends. There are
three molecules in production at Brotas now. Expect a fourth this
year. Five, six, seven and eight — if you imagine those are well
down the development pipeline, you wouldn’t be arrested on
suspicion of smoking hashish.
But think upon this. Unless you are somewhere in the Bay Area and
in the synthbio community, or working at a development partner
where you can deep dive into hard data under the safe cover of
DNA, most of what you will hear is coming from a public company,
trying very hard to simplify and make more popular a story that
they need to tell on Wall Street. As the stock prices goes, so
does the company’s capital strength and its ability to fund its
So, most of what you will hear is not about “velocity” and
“Design-Build-Test-Learn”. No one’s going to say anything to Wall
Street about “assay noise” or “robotics platforms” or the pace of
genetic manipulation. The story will be told mostly in terms of
this-many-units of Muck Daddy and that-many-units of Biossance
products, and that-many-tons of biofene sold to
this-many-customers. Sometimes, you’ll hear specific brands,
especially if they are blue-chippers. And you may hear about the
company building more and more direct links to the retail customer
where they see a niche and don;t currently have a partner who sees
a place in the value chain for themselves. As in Biossance, for
All those are good things.
But you and I might take a moment and look beyond the weather of
today and the weather of the next quarter — as we do in looking
towards climate change and outcomes for the physical environment
in the next 60 years. And you’ll see more lines of R&D, more
products appearing, more yield improvements. It’s the More Law,
even more than Moore’s Law. As in “faster”.
If it’s yield in the fermenter that matters to companies like
Amyris — even more than rate and titre — it’s entirely the other
way around in looking at the company. There, it’s rate. As in pace
of innovation. Even more than yield — which is to say the result
in products. You see, in the future, companies that produce one
monster product each decade or so — that’s the old world of Yield.
But now it’s about partnership, and big companies look to small
companies because they are nimble, and that’s about rate.
was originally published.
Biofuels Digest is the most widely read Biofuels daily read
by 14,000+ organizations. Subscribe
If not now, then when?
This is the defining moment when corporate America needs to stand up and publicly show leadership on confronting the biggest t…
Read more: Climate Change, Renewable Energy, Climate Change Laws, Whatswor…
The Green News Report is also available via…
IN TODAY’S RADIO REPORT: The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; NASA warns at least 3 ft. o…
Read more: Barack Obama, BRAD BLOG, Climate Change, Climate Change Denial,…
In other words, global warming is injecting steroids into weather disasters. Without countermeasures, it will get much worse. Yet the response among deniers in Congress is to escalate their campaign to sabotage any government effort to reduc…
Early adopters are consumers who aspire to own the newest gadget even if it means paying top price. When it came to a renewable energy plan for our home and automobiles, we were no exceptions.
Read more: Renewable Energy, Electr…
Your Meat-Eating Habit Is Killing More Than Just Cows — says a new report, which cites the land degradation, pollution and deforestation caused by rising global demand for meat as “likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions.”
Read more: Climate Change, Environment, Drought, Extreme Weather, Global Warming, Sustainability, Energy, Energy Efficiency, Nature, Science, Technology, Technologie, Green Technology, Technology News, Climate Change Denial, Climate, Climate Science, Climate-Change, Obama, Green Energy, Clean Energy, Renewable Energy, Natural Gas, Wind Power, Solar Power, Fossil Fuels, Heat Waves, Congress, Voting, Weather, Business, Business News, Corporations, Economy, Climate Change Solutions, Greenhouse Gases, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Carbon Emissions, Food, Water, Coal, Fracking, Oil, Agriculture, Crops, Rising Sea Levels, Insurance, Pollution, Wildlife, Transportation, Transports, Transport, Cities, Deforestation, Jobs, Natural Disasters, Population, Population Growth, Overpopulation, Oceans, President Obama, Barack Obama, Epa, Nasa, Noaa, Department of Energy, Republicans, Gop, Democrats, Animals, Cute Animals, Fish, Birds, Activism, Political Activism, Humor, Alaska, California, New York, Idaho, Virginia, Oregon, Washington, United Nations, United Kingdom, England, Australia, Britain, Canada, China, Europe, European Union, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Asia, Africa, South America, Children, Children’S Health, Kids, Human Health, Health, Education, Air Pollution, Pope Francis, Religion, Seafood, Google, Vatican, Catholics, Islam, Muslims, Christians, New Orleans, Salmonella, Green News
by Mark Tan
The country is currently experiencing a shift toward more
sustainable living. In addition to the wide array of whole food
markets and hybrid cars available to today’s consumer, many people
also want their investments working for the greater good. Although
these investments have been around for more than a decade, the past
few years have seen substantial growth in the areas of charitable
investments, sustainable 401ks, and green bonds. No matter your
passion, your financial portfolio can make a difference in the
world, while still generating profit for you.
Charitable investments, also known as impact or sustainable
investments, are those made in companies, organizations or funds
with the intent to generate a measurable, beneficial impact on
society. Rather than yielding exclusively financial returns, they
seek to boost a positive social agenda, an environmental or medical
cause, or back socially responsible companies.
The landscape of charitable investments has been growing steadily
for the past few years. According to a
recent study conducted by the Morgan Stanley Institute for
Sustainable Investing, the total volume of these investments has
nearly doubled over the past two years, growing from $3.5 trillion
in 2012 to nearly $6.6 trillion in 2014.
The same study found that more than 70 percent of investors are
interested in finding more charitable options and expect to see
growth in the area over the next five years.
Financial Institutions. Some of the nation’s largest banking
institutions have moved toward investing more assets in charitable
causes. In 2013 when Morgan Stanley formed the Institute for
Sustainable Investing, it did so with the goal of having $10 billion
in client assets invested for social and environmental causes within
the first five years. Chief Executive Audrey
Choi said, “We fundamentally believe that considering the
sustainability and impact of your investments is a business
opportunity for us and our clients. We also think it’s a
fundamentally strong value proposition to integrate thinking about
large global issues in your investing decisions.”
Bank of America’s head of Global Wealth and Retirement Solutions
Andy Sieg agrees, saying, “We think impact investing is an idea
whose time has come in mainstream wealth management.”
Corporations. Many businesses are also beginning to see the
benefits of focusing on sustainability and providing ethical
investment options. Smart investing, good publicity, and a positive
reputation will eventually lead to profit, but companies are also
seeing improvement off the books. A charitable giving program
can improve employee engagement and company morale. When employees
are pleased with their corporate culture it drives them to perform
Higher levels of employee engagement, coupled with more responsible
and forward-thinking practices have led many of the nation’s largest
corporations to work toward improving climate change, adopting
sustainable production and operation practices, and addressing poor
conditions within their organizations as well as in developing
Some companies have taken responsible financing one step further
from simply running their businesses and choosing their investments
more responsibly, and begun helping their employees invest
responsibly as well. The industry is beginning to see a trend in
companies choosing their employee 401k programs based on
sustainability ratings. These plans rate the sustainability of its
participants’ holdings to ensure each dollar invested is done so
Millennials. While the nation’s banking institutions and
business are shifting their priorities and providing the capital
behind the charitable investing trend, the real driving force behind
the growth is the millennial generation. While young adults may not
be contributing large sums to charities each year, studies
show that the majority of the generation has made donations,
solicited donations and/or volunteered, and even more have the
intention to do so in the future.
Bradford Bernstein, Senior Vice President of Wealth Management with
UBS in Philadelphia thinks that experienced investors could actually
learn something from the younger generation. “Millennials are the
biggest force behind this trend of socially responsible investing,”
he said. “[They] are interested in making a difference, and they
choose to invest and buy from companies that are making a social
statement.” It is this generation that will be running the banks and
businesses in a few years. When their drive to make a difference
meets the ability to put the capital behind it, the market with
undoubtedly see even more exponential growth in this area.
Despite overwhelming growth and the desire to make a difference,
there are still financial considerations to be made when choosing
investments. Charitable investing is about finding the balance
between investments and maximizing the social benefits of those
investments. A portfolio built entirely on emotional and moral
decisions is not likely to yield the same returns as one that
focuses solely on appreciation and growth.
The common misconception is that charitable investments do not
perform as well as others. It may be true that the returns may be
lower than in some more traditional investments. However, the drive
and passion behind the causes being funded by these investments can
lead to greater returns.
The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible investment conducted
a study in 2012 that found that at the time, one out of every
nine dollars under professional management in the country was
invested according to sustainable strategies. The report found that
charitable investing grew 486 percent between 1995 and the date of
the study, while other assets under professional management only
grew 376 percent during that time period. The responsible
investments saw greater growth in response to social changes in the
country, government backing, and through a desire and a need to
affect high-profile issues, such as climate change.
As is always the case when building a financial portfolio, certain
types of investments may be more risky than others. Choosing
stocks based on the organization’s social responsibility, for
example, may not be as productive as buying based on appreciation.
Because of their limitations, stocks focused specifically on making
a difference often are not very growth-oriented.
Mutual Funds. If you are ready to start making your money
work for more than just returns, socially responsible or faith-based
mutual funds are a great starting point. It can be difficult to
identify sustainable and ethical companies. There may be a false
perception that a certain company would not do anything immoral, but
mutual fund managers generally have done their due diligence. These
funds are often designed to favor companies that meet certain
criteria, cover companies with high social, environmental and
governance standards and actively avoid companies with unsustainable
Green Bonds. For those investors who want to balance
their portfolio to include more stable investments, green bonds can
round out a portfolio while encouraging environmental
sustainability. Green bonds are typically issued by federally
qualified organizations for the development and
maintenance of brownfield sites – areas of land that are
underutilized or underdeveloped. Other
green bonds aim to raise funds to support lending for projects
that seek climate change or renewable energy.
Due Diligence. When investigating companies be wary of
those that use good deeds to conceal bad behavior. Instead focus on
companies where environmental and social concerns rank high among
the corporation’s priorities, like Google (GOOG).
In such companies the executives often make substantial
contributions to the company-backed causes and truly live their
Identify companies that provide sustainable and helpful goods or
services. These companies conserve energy, operate efficiently, and
design products and services using recycled materials that save the
user money and make their lives better. Companies such as Nike and
Johnson Controls (JCI)
fit this description.
Closely monitored working conditions, strong safety and health
standards, and high employee satisfaction are also good indicators
of a responsibly-run organization. Employee satisfaction and
engagement ratings do not lie and can help identify those
organizations with an ethical mission statement, such as Apple.
Last, but not at all least, seek out investments in businesses with
a long-standing reputation for product sustainability, transparency,
and leadership. Panera, for example, prides itself on its history of
fair animal treatment, using local produce, and adding no artificial
ingredients to its healthy menu items. Strong leadership with strong
ethical beliefs can ensure that your money will be put toward a good
The first step toward building a sustainable investment portfolio is
to decide how to blend your finances and life views.
For example, some investors may view Coca-Cola as an organization
that mass produces sugary, unhealthy drinks to the American public,
while others may see a global clean-water and efficiency program.
Define what causes and cultures are important to you and begin
investigating companies that share your vision, but that does so
while keeping an eye on growth. Experts suggest starting slowly, and
finding a guide.
About the Author
Guided by his strong faith and charitable instinct, Mark Tan is
committed to helping others live happy, virtuous lives.
At Thrivent Financial, Mark assesses his clients’ unique
situations and creates financial plans customized to their needs.
He empowers his clients to make informed decisions to stay on
track and reach their goals. His sophisticated approach to
financial planning helps clients assess multiple financial goals
and concerns. As part of a team of professionals that share
his commitment to service, Mark has the opportunity to work
one-on-one with clients and also access additional resources and
knowledge from of members of his team when needed. Contact Mark at
email@example.com. To view or download the entire eBook, visit http://www.mark-tan.com/.