The State of Delaware, long an international hub for the petrochemical industry, is home to a growing number of next-generation chemical companies developing new products and technologies that employ sustainable practices and address environmental issues.
One of these is White Dog Labs (WDL), which is using microorganisms to produce biochemicals, biofuels, and animal feed proteins. The company’s technology has been called transformative because of its potential to significantly increase biochemical production while simultaneously slashing carbon emissions.
WDL has taken the technology from the lab to a demo facility in New Castle, Delaware, where it is testing scaled-up operations as it looks for investors to capitalize a commercial plant.
The company has secured a prestigious grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to continue developing its fermentation technology platform, and it is a semifinalist in the $20 million NRG Cosia Carbon Xprize, a global competition for developing innovative carbon capture technology.
A fresh start
These are exciting times for a company that only a few years ago found itself at a crossroads after seismic shifts in its industry.
WDL, then operating as University of Delaware spin-out Elcriton, had developed a fermentation process for producing butanol, a biofuel that offered several advantages over the more widely-used ethanol. However, a perfect storm of public policy hurdles, severe drought, and plummeting oil prices killed industry appetite for butanol, forcing Elcriton to halt plans to build a commercial plant.
“Renewable chemicals are capital-intensive research products, and to get a product to market that competes with other commodities could take $500 million,” explains Bryan Tracy, CEO and co-founder of Elcriton and now WDL, which acquired Elcriton. (WDL is funded by former semiconductor executive and Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame member Sass Somekh and his son Talli, a software and biofuels entrepreneur).
Looking to quickly pivot, the company sought out other opportunities to apply its technology. “As we met with industry players, it became clear that while only a select number of companies were interested in butanol, many more were interested in our platform. We crunched the numbers and determined we could effectively compete with petroleum by using our technology platform to produce other biochemicals like acetone and isopropanol,” Tracy says. “And that was just the beginning. There are a whole host of chemicals that we can produce, both independently and with other companies, using our biochemical process.”
WDL’s technology ticks off key economic and environmental boxes:
- WDL uses a proprietary class of fermentation technologies to produce sustainable biochemicals like acetone, isopropanol, fuels and protein-rich foods, instead of deriving them from fossil fuels.
- WDL scientists have engineered the fermentation process to improve efficiencies by 50 to 100 percent, making it significantly more cost competitive than traditional fermentation processes.
- Part of this gained efficiency is due to the fact that the process actually consumes the CO2 it generates and uses it to improve the process, rather than releasing it into the environment.
“We are essentially working to replace petroleum with sugar to produce a range of biochemical products in a sustainable and commercially viable way,” Tracy explains.
Food, fuel for the future
Tracy is particularly enthusiastic about the company’s latest efforts to apply the technology to produce protein-rich feeds. “Population growth and a continued shift toward meat-based protein consumption will drive demand for higher-value animal feed, and for processes that can produce it sustainably,” Tracy explains. “We can use our technology to produce feed for cows, chickens, pigs and especially fish by upgrading lower-value plant protein to higher-value microbial protein.”
The product is a more sustainable option than using fishmeal for farmed fish, and unlike biofuels and biochemicals, is not competitive to the petrochemical industry. “It’s hard to turn off a billion-dollar oil refining business,” Tracy notes, “and protein is not commonly produced from petroleum or natural gas.”
WDL’s long-term strategy is elegant and farsighted: Ramp up shorter-term successes like animal feed and acetone production while continuing to refine the technology, form strategic partnerships and grow the business to be ready when it becomes possible to financially compete with the petrochemical industry to produce biochemicals in a sustainable manner.
“We are taking incremental steps to manage risk, secure investment, and prove the technology is commercially feasible before going head to head with petroleum products, and at the same time make a real difference in the world,” Tracy says.
Delaware’s home field advantage
“Here in Delaware, we interact with one of the richest networks in the world in the chemical industry.”
The State of Delaware has played a key role in White Dog Labs’ inception and progress. A predecessor company, Elcriton, was launched eight years ago by University of Delaware chemical engineering professor Terry Papoutsakis and his then-grad student Tracy, and has continued to maintain close ties with the University. WDL employs UD students and scientists, highlighting the public-private partnership opportunities that thrive in the State.
The State’s legacy as a leader in the chemical industry has also been integral to the company’s growth. “With small companies like ours, although few question that the technology is transformative, we didn’t necessarily have the expertise to address issues like navigating complex value chains and accessing decision makers at strategic businesses,” he says. “But here in Delaware, we interact with one of the richest networks in the world in the chemical industry. I’ve had CEOs and ex-CEOs from some of the world’s biggest chemical companies in the facility to see what we’re doing, provide feedback, and call others. They are calling board members at chemical companies around the world to say ‘take these people seriously and connect them.’”
Tracy is also president of the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance, he is working with colleagues to consolidate the State’s chemistry brain trust and make it available to small companies. “All that understanding and knowledge is here, and there are so many people who are willing to share what they know. I genuinely believe that is what makes Delaware the best place to capitalize on the sustainable chemical industry in the U.S.”
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