Medford pair creating way to use husks for ethanol

Thursday, May 15th, 2008
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Medford pair creating way to use husks for ethanol
Foresee product on market by 2012

By Davis Bushnell, Globe Correspondent | May 15, 2008

Renewable energy is a hot topic these days, given soaring gasoline prices and discussions of how production of ethanol, now primarily a home-grown, cornstarch product, can be boosted to reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil.

One way to do that, industry specialists say, is to develop ethanol based on cellulose, or glucose units found on plants’ cell walls. And that’s exactly the goal of Agrivida Inc., a small five-year-old Medford company that is researching the use of corn husks and leaves for the ethanol process.

“Instead of using corn kernels, or the conventional process, we’re taking the husks and leaves to create sugar which, when mixed with yeast, will yield ethanol,” Michael Raab, a cofounder and chief executive of Agrivida, said during an interview recently in the company’s 6,500-square-foot quarters.

Jeremy Johnson, 32, is the other founder and vice president. Both he and Raab have doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We think cellulose has great potential” for increased ethanol production, said the 34-year-old Raab, who lives in Medford. The company’s first products, he said, are expected to be launched in 2012 and 2013. The company’s first revenues could be realized in 2010, from licensing agreements with agricultural companies, he said.

Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Washington-based Renewable Fuels Association, said he’s bullish on the research being done by Agrivida and other companies. “And a lot of this research is focused on cellulose for ethanol.”

“We definitely see a future involving cellulose,” added Ron Litterer, president of the National Corn Growers Association, headquartered in Washington. Cellulose-based ethanol would result in increased yields and would permit more corn to be reserved for livestock, Litterer and Raab agreed.

Last year, 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol were produced in the United States, most of it from cornstarch, Hartwig added. The first sizable ethanol production, spurred by the gasoline shortages of the 1970s, was in 1980, when 175 million gallons were produced, he said.

The work that Agrivida is doing is generating considerable interest from government agencies, Raab said, adding that the company recently received a $1 million grant from the federal departments of agriculture and energy for looking into ways of making it easier to decompose sugar in plant materials.

Agrivida has 15 full-time employees in Medford and four others working in a Connecticut greenhouse. An additional 25 full-time employees are expected to be hired over the next two years, Raab said.

Last summer, Agrivida signed on with Codon Devices Inc. of Cambridge for a major research project.

Codon president and cofounder Brian Baynes said, “We’re engineering enzymes that will change the way plant materials are processed for biofuel applications.” Specifically, Codon and Agrivida are injecting “high-potency proteins” in corn that will allow the stover, or husks and leaves, to be converted to ethanol, Baynes explained.

For now, Agrivida is living off grants totaling $1.5 million, a substantial, undisclosed amount ponied up by several venture capital firms, and other funds contributed by a half-dozen individuals, Raab said. The venture firms and individuals are not being identified, he said.

The Westborough-based Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which is backing renewable-energy efforts, among other endeavors, made one of the first loans, for $50,000, to Agrivida in 2004. The loan has since been repaid.

“We were impressed by Agrivida’s intention to develop different corn traits” that could allow for the more efficient production of ethanol, said Warren Leon, director of the collaborative’s Renewable Energy Trust. “As far as we can tell, there are no other companies in Massachusetts” engaged in the same type of research, he added.

Other, larger national companies are revving up their research efforts, Raab acknowledged, “but we have several patents pending and are confident of what we’re doing.”

For a while, Raab had been ambivalent about what he would be doing for a career.

“I had had interviews for faculty jobs at MIT and the University of Virginia,” he said. “But based on our doctoral dissertations at MIT, Jeremy [Johnson] and I realized that there were good agricultural applications for what we’d been researching.

“And since 2003, when the firm was incorporated, the ethanol field has been growing like gangbusters.”
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