For denizens of the suburbs, gasoline may mean survival, but it is hardly the only product using fossil based fuels (petroleum, coal, and natural gas) that are essential to daily life in the 21st century. Even the environmentally conscious bicycle rider uses rubber tires, and pretty much everybody uses a toothbrush and toothpaste. There also are shower curtains, tennis racquets, perfumes, linoleum floor coverings, upholstery, hair dyes, and so on.
To replace one fossil-based input necessary for creating these products, DNP Green Technology, based in Quebec, recently opened an office in Princeton and has developed succinic acid, a bio-derived equivalent to a petroleum commodity. Succinic acid is produced via a fermentation process that combines carbon dioxide with glucose either from crops like corn, wheat, sugar cane, or sugar beets, or from non-food biomass.
DNP’s mission is to commercialize industrial biotechnologies for producing all kinds of chemicals. “Right now, we have succinic acid,” says Dilum Dunuwila, above right, vice president of engineering at DNP Green Technology, who runs the Princeton office from his home on Dorann Avenue. “But we are also working on other chemicals that can be derived from renewable resources.” The company’s process is green not only because its inputs are renewable but also because it consumes carbon dioxide, a contributor to global warming, he says.
The seeds of DNP Green Technology go back to 1995 when Applied Carbochemicals, a Pennsylvania-based specialty chemicals company, developed fermentation technology for producing succinic acid.
In 2003 Applied Carbochemicals merged into Diversified Natural Products, and two years later started looking for partners that had fermentation development and scale-up experience. The French agricultural minister contacted the company and suggested Agro-Industry Researches Developments, or ARD, whose mission is to add value to the agricultural crops of an agro-business in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France.
After some of the early development work to create a commercially viable process for producing succinic acid and the scale up, DNP Green Technology and ARD formalized a joint venture, Bioamber, in early 2008. On behalf of Bioamber, ARD has built a demonstration plant costing $30 million in Pomacle, France, to produce 5 million pounds of succinic acid.
DNP Green Technology’s contribution to the joint venture is the fermentation technology it developed with the Department of Energy back in 1995.
At the beginning of this year, the management team of DNP Green Technologies spun out the succinic acid technology from Diversified Natural Products in order to focus on commercializing succinic acid. “When you are trying to raise capital to do development and commercialization,” says Dunuwila, “it is very hard to convince an investor to invest in a company with all kinds of different assets.”
Although Diversified Natural Products and DNP Green Technology have some common shareholders, their managements are completely independent.
Bioamber will be the sole licensor for the succinic acid technology but will not operate commercial plants on its own. DNP Green Technology will form partnerships that will build and operate plants to produce succinic acid under a license from Bioamber.
The licensee, for example, might be a consortium that includes a starch producer that will provide glucose; a company with the fermentation expertise necessary to operate a plant; a business that will create an input needed for a final product, such as a polymer or a plastic created from succinic acid; and finally the company that produces a consumer product, for example, Nike or Reebok, that would use the input to create, say, a shoe sole.
DNP Green Technology would then make a capital investment in building the plant. As a result, it would be earning a revenue stream from the operation of the plant as well as a royalty stream from the license. ARD will also get a royalty stream, but also has the option of creating consortia in Europe for additional revenue.
Bioamber can pace the sales of licenses and determine whom to sell them to and what plant locations would be in its best interests. Dunuwila expects to see the first commercial-scale plant in operation within two years.
As to concerns from the environmental community that using foods as fuels drives up the prices of food worldwide, Dunuwila notes that only 5 to 10 percent of fossil-based feedstocks are used to produce chemicals as opposed to the 90 percent that goes into fuel production. Only a percentage of these chemicals would be coming from bio-based sources, and hence DNP Green Technology’s use of glucose from crops is relatively small.
DNP Green Technology has a core group of five and hires consultants when needed. So far, the office here consists only of Dunuwila. It has another office in Montreal.
On October 26 DNP Green announced an equity investment of $12 million through a syndicate led by Sofinnova Partners and including Mitsui & Co. Venture Partners, Samsung Ventures Investment Corporation, the Cliffton Group, and AquaRIMCO. “The money from investors on the first round will take us to profitability, otherwise venture groups won’t put in money,” says Dunuwila. “After that, there will be capital requirements for building plants, and the same investors have capital resources.”
On December 1 Bioamber signed an exclusive agreement for supplying bio-based succinic acid to Sinoven Biopolymers, which will use it to produce renewable modified polybutylene succinate plastic. Sinoven will be the first company to commercialize this product with renewable content above 50 percent. Its applications include foodservice coffee lids, cups, dishes, cutlery, straws, and stirrers, as well as consumer products such as disposable razors, writing instruments, and cosmetics packaging. Sinoven has production facilities in Shanghai, China, and offices in Philadelphia, Shanghai, and Beijing.
Dunuwila grew up in Sri Lanka where his father was an administrator for a construction company and his mother was a homemaker and avid amateur horticulturist. Dunuwila, who went to Michigan State University for college and graduate school, opines about his choice of a school so far from home. “It is very common for people growing up in third world countries — when they see an opportunity, they take it and go.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1990 Dunuwila continued on for a doctorate, writing his dissertation on industrial crystallization. After finishing graduate school he started working on succinic acid, and he is co-author on several patents in the DNP portfolio.
Some of DNP Green Technology’s intellectual property portfolio is from the Department of Energy and some from Michigan State.
DNP Green Technologies, 53 Dorann Avenue, Princeton 08540; 609-945-1729. Dilum Dunuwila, vice president. www.dnpgreen.com.