Tuesday, July 03, 2007

$125 million from the U.S. Department of Energy over 5 years to 130 scientists from Bay Area including UC Davis

Lean structure, partnerships to shape new bioenergy center

East Bay Business Times - June 29, 2007by Michael Fitzhugh

A lean startup structure and industrial partnerships will give the East Bay's new Joint Bioenergy Institute an edge in getting the fruits of its research to market according its key architects.

"As discoveries are made by scientists, we need to transition those to the public," said Jay Keasling, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director and UC-Berkeley professor designated as JBEI's top boss. "Having companies engaged in and funding research is a very good thing. It allows us to transfer the science to them and get their products out to the public even faster."

The close collaboration, led by the Berkeley lab, is expected to receive $125 million from the U.S. Department of Energy over five years to marshal the expertise of as many as 130 scientists from Sandia National Laboratories, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UC-Berkeley, UC-Davis and Stanford University.

In all, three bioenergy centers were funded, including JBEI. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, will lead the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., will lead the third center, the Bioenergy Science Centers, to use grasses, trees and microbes for making liquid fuels.

At JBEI, "the idea is not to just fund a bunch of academic researchers who show up and pursue whatever research they want, but to have people who truly talk to each other," said Kathe Andrews-Cramer, Sandia's manager of computation systems biology and JBEI's vice president of strategic integration.

"This is the first time I can remember the DOE actually stating that they want a large amount of industrial involvement and something like a startup company mentality," said Harvey Blanch, the new institute's chief science and technology officer and a UC professor.

To meet that demand, Andrews-Cramer said lead scientists gathered together daily at times for the last nine months making difficult budget and project proposal decisions together.

Another novel decision echoes that of scrappy tech startups and leading pharmaceutical companies which rely on rapid information sharing: the use of Web-based lab notebooks - from San Diego's KineMatik USA in this case - which will aggregate researchers' notes and data in a central database in real time.

"It means you never have to hunt somebody down and dig a lab notebook out of their bottom drawer to get data. That means you can do analyses you could never have done before," Andrews-Cramer said. "Being able to track what doesn't work as well as what does work can be some of the most useful information you'll ever have."

An 11-company industrial advisory board - dealing in everything from agricultural feedstocks to auto engines - will help keep the institute's research connected to commercial realities.

The institute expects to receive its funding in the next couple of months, said Blanch. For now, the search is on for a facility offering the 50,000 to 60,000 square feet of lab space Blanch estimates the institute will need.


Joint Bioenergy Institute

Business: Bioenergy research and development
Founded: 2007
CEO: Jay Keasling
Employees: 130 expected
Temporary address: Berkeley West Biocenter, 717 Potter St., Berkeley 94710
Web site: www.jbei.org


mfitzhugh@bizjournals.com | 925-598-1425

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