Comet Biorefining

Founded: 2009

Founders: Andrew Richard

Estimated Total Funding:

2015, an undisclosed amount provided by BioAmber and Sofinnova Partners.

2016, $29 million, Sustainable Development Technology Canada has awarded $10.9 million grant, the remaining $18.5 million investment came from the consortium members: BioAmber, Domtar, and UPM.

2017, completed an undisclosed round of equity financing from PM Equity Partnership (VC arm of Philip Morris), Sofinnova and Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC). BIC has made a $0.5 million investment in this round.

Employees: ~10

Patents: 1 patent application

Growth History:

2009 Comet Biorefining was founded by Andrew Richard with the aim of converting biomass waste into a usable chemical product. The company started with a patent application for its cellulosic sugar technology with its low-cost pre-treatment process. This process produces sugar from a wide range of biomass feed such as wood chips, switchgrass, and corn cobs. Laboratory testing of the technology demonstrated costs as low as 7 cents per pound for the produced sugar.

2011 Comet Biorefining established a demonstration plant of its technology in Rotondella, Italy. ENEA (Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development) entered into a partnership with Comet Biorefining, where ENEA owns the plant and provided a re-purposed biomass conversion facility. The plant has proven Comet’s technology with producing 5 dry tons of sugar per day.

2012 Comet Biorefining opened a cellulosic sugar toll processing plant in Southwestern Ontario. The plant processes feedstock for current and potential customers of Comet.

2015 Comet Biorefining started the design of a commercial-scale biorefinery facility in Sarnia for converting corn stover into cellulosic sugar. The facility is expected to come online in 2018, cost $70 million and produce 27 million kilograms (60 million pounds) of dextrose sugar annually. The plant will be located at the TransAlta Energy Park which was once occupied by a large Dow Chemical complex.

Comet Biorefining has partnered with Cellulosic Sugar Producers Cooperative (CSPC) to develop a sustainable agricultural biomass supply chain. CSPC will be recruiting growers from southwestern Ontario to supply 75,000 tonnes of biomass, mostly corn stover and wheat straw.

2016 Comet Biorefining signed an offtake agreement with BioAmber to supply high-purity dextrose sugar to its Sarnia manufacturing facility. BioAmber will purchase the dextrose sugar at a price indexed to glucose sugar. BioAmber is a bio-succinic acid producer which owns a $141.5 million, 30,000 tonne annual production succinic acid plant in Sarnia. Succinic acid is a building block chemical that can be used to replace oil-based chemicals.

BioIndustrial Innovation Canada has completed its cellulosic sugar study and recommended Comet Biorefining to be one of the four most promising technologies from among the 18 contestants tested by BIC researchers.

Comet Biorefining has signed and exclusive agreement with Fulton Engineering Specialties Inc. to provide a turn-key manufacture of Comet’s modular cellulosic sugar process systems. Fulton Engineered Specialties is a designer and fabricator of custom pressure equipment. It designs, fabricates and tests chemical process systems.

Cellulosic Sugar Producers Cooperative Partnership

The CSPC is recruiting growers to supply 75,000 tonnes of biomass as feedstock to Comet’s biorefining facility. It has the support of the farmer grain handling and retail co-ops: Agris Co-operative, Wanstead Farmers Co-operative, BioIndustrial Innovation Canada and Quebec’s La Coop Fédérée. CSPC will require around 55,000 acres to produce the required feedstock.

Farmers are asked to sign an agreement committing at least 100 acres with 1.5 tonnes of stover produced per acre per year and to invest $200 per acre and $500 per subscription shares in the co-op. Farmers will be paid about $40 per tonne of wheat straw and $25 per tonne of corn stover, translating on average to a $42 per acre return at 15.5% moisture content. Initially, the plant will use 2/3 corn stover and 1/3 wheat straw. Additionally, the farmers will own around 30% of the plant and will receive a variable return linked to the price of dextrose which is indexed to glucose sugar price. CSPC is predicting the return from plant ownership to be around $20 per acre.

The co-op will flail-chop the stover, bale and stack it and truck the bales off the farmer’s fields.

Unit Economics

Cost of plant is $70 million: $11 million CSPC, $29 million STDC + partners, $9 million from equity funding, $21 million from commercial debt.

Comet is working with three lenders on due diligence for the commercial debt including Farm Credit Canada, Libro Credit Union and the Business Development Bank of Canada.

Feedstock cost: 75,000 tonnes at $30/tonne= $2.25 million

Feedstock usually accounts for 30%-50% of cost, with the rest coming from transportation and plant costs such as power and input chemicals=> total costs $5.5–7.5 million

The plan will produce 27 million kilograms (60 million pounds) of dextrose sugar annually. The current sugar price per pound is $0.1–0.15. Sugar prices are affected by the price of corn and have an intrinsic floor price driven by ethanol prices.

Revenue: Sugar price $0.1–0.15 per pound x 60 million pounds = $6–9 million.

Gross Margin: $0–3.5 million

CSPC estimates it’s share of cash flow to be $20/acre with 55,000 acres this translates to $1.1 million. With CSPC being a 30% owner the net cash flow results in $3.5 million.

Based on this projections and due to the grant the project might be able to return a mid to high single digit levered return (6–8%).

Products

Comet Biorefining has developed a low-cost two-stage cellulosic sugar process that replaces traditional pre-treatment of biomass and reduces enzyme loading. The first stage of the process activates the cellulosic biomass followed by a conversion to glucose. All of the co-products generated from the process are used either for energy production or other applications.

http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2016/07/04/cellulosic-sugar-daddy-the-digests-2016-multi-slide-guide-to-comet-biorefining/4/

The resulting high purity dextrose can be used for follow-on industrial processes to produce biochemicals, bioplastics, and biofuels (plastics, resins, plasticizers, polyurethanes and lubricants) which can be used to displace petroleun-based products.

Comet’s technology allows for the conversion of wood, wheat straw, bagasse, corn stover and other agricultural waste material into high purity cellulosic glucose syrup. Using agricultural waste materials results in lower costs sugar as compared to corn or sugar cane and does not impact food production. Through locking in cheap biomass supply the resulting sugar offers both lower prices and less volatility than standard sources of sugar such as corn dextrose and №11 Sugar (produced from sugar cane or beets).

http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2016/07/04/cellulosic-sugar-daddy-the-digests-2016-multi-slide-guide-to-comet-biorefining/5/

The technology has been designed to be modular and cost-effective based on off the shelf equipment. This allows for sugar to be produced close to where the biomass is grown, thus reducing feedstock transportation costs. The cellulosic sugar has high energy density and is stable for months, allowing it to be stored and shipped over long distances.

Comet Biorefining plans to build, own and operate its own plants as well as strategically license its technology to select worldwide partners.

Major Customers

All of the dextrose sugar produced by the Sarnia facility will be sold to BioAmber’s bio-succinic acid plant is Sarnia. BioAmber is a public listed sustainable chemicals company with a $60 million market cap and about $8 million of revenue and $160 million of assets. BioAmber has been growing its revenue over the last few years but has not become profitable and has lost investor’s confidence through a class-action lawsuit against the directors.

This poses a significant risk to Comet Biorefining, where a major customer might be in financial trouble which could translate into lower revenues or the need to ship its product over longer distances.

Patents

Comet Biorefining has one patent application (Methods and compositions for the treatment of cellulosic biomass and products produced thereby ) with the publication number WO 2016161515 A1. The patent describes a two-step method for activating cellulosic feedstock. Initially, the feedstock is put through a high-temperature process followed up by a second step at a lower temperature and alkaline conditions. Further, the method is expanded to describe the enzymatic hydrolysis process by employing a surfactant, polyaspartic acid and one or more cellulase enzymes.

Team

Andrew Richard is the founder and CTO of Comet Biorefining. He is a recognized expert in the field of biomass conversion, pre-treatment, and biorefining. He has an MBA and a Ph.D. in Biochemical Engineering.

Rich Troyer is the COE. He brings an extensive experience in operating, corporate development (from Coskata ) and financing (The Blackstone Group) in renewable chemicals and biofuels.

Dennis D’Agostino is the VP of Operations and brings over 25 years of experience in project management and process development.

Market Opportunity

  1. Size of Market

The chemical marketplace is forecast to be worth $ 2 trillion in 2025, with the petrochemical market being $758 billion by 2022 (Grand View Research). Currently, the bio-based chemical market is worth $65 billion, and it expected to grow by 20%, reaching $200 billion by 2025. The high growth forecast is based on the fact that most of the petroleum-based chemicals can be replaced by bio-based chemicals. In addition, major chemical companies have set a 2020 goal of producing 20% of the chemicals from bio-based products. The bioplastics market is currently worth $2 billion(Morgan Stanley) but is expected to grow by 40%, as is gains market share from fossil-based plastics which currently account for a $150 billion market.

Bio-based or white biotech chemicals accounted for just 2% of the world chemical market in 2009. By 2013 they have achieved a growth rate of 31%.

http://www.palgrave-journals.com/jcb/journal/v17/n2/fig_tab/jcb201040f2.html

Most of the growth in bio-based products will come from fine and specialty chemicals with the highest growth seen in organic acids and polymers.

https://www.slideshare.net/JamesSherwood2/bio-based-products-workshop-james-sherwood-nov-2014-presenter-version
https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/nl/Documents/manufacturing/deloitte-nl-manufacturing-opportunities-for-the-fermentation-based-chemical-industry-2014.pdf

Comet Biorefining has positioned itself to be the supplier to this high growth bio-based chemicals market. The dextrose produced by Comet can be used to manufacture any of the high growth products.

http://www.bioenergyconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/McLaughlin-Murray.pdf
http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2016/04/11/pivot-to-play-the-digests-2016-multi-slide-guide-to-cellulosic-sugars/2/

The highest value products that can be created from the sugar are vitamins and acids.

https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/nl/Documents/manufacturing/deloitte-nl-manufacturing-opportunities-for-the-fermentation-based-chemical-industry-2014.pdf

Comet’s production of 27,000 tonnes annually is small compared to North American bio-sugar production of 2–3 million tonnes and 12–13 million tonnes per year worldwide production. The succinic acid produced by BioAmber from Comet’s sugar production can be used to make anything from nylons to PBT (electrical insulation).

2) Uses

The derived bioplastics and bio-based polymers are mostly used as a replacement of traditional plastics in packaging and consumer goods.

http://www.european-bioplastics.org/market/
http://news.bio-based.eu/fast-growth-of-based-polymers-production/

3) Potential

North and South America as well as southern Asia, have the greatest potential for agricultural crop residues. Canada alone has a potential to produce 55 million tonnes per year. Currently, in Canada, only 5–7 million of agricultural residue is used for livestock, while the rest is left on the fields.

Studies have shown that up to 25% of corn stover can be removed safely without impacting the soil quality through erosion and nutrient loss.

Natural sources of sugar such as beets and cane currently have higher production costs than the feedstock required for Comet’s process.

https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/nl/Documents/manufacturing/deloitte-nl-manufacturing-opportunities-for-the-fermentation-based-chemical-industry-2014.pdf

5) Technology

Four different technologies exist for converting biomass to sugars: Acid hydrolysis, supercritical hydrolysis, biosynthetic (organosolv) hydrolysis and enzymatic hydrolysis. Comet’s technology is based on the enyzmatic hydrolysis path, which is highly customized for the feedstock and requires consumption of premium enzymes and longer processing times. The other sugar paths offer some advantages over Comet’s technology such as reduced consumables and faster processing times.

http://renmatix.com/technology/plantrose-technology/benefits

4) Challenges

The price of sugar is influenced by local factors, such as transportation costs as well as the quality of the product. BioAmber being Comet’s sole off-taker exposes them to the risk of receiving lower sugar prices if BioAmber gets in trouble.Under such a scenario the selling price of dextrose would drop due to higher transportation costs and the difference in product quality that other off-takers would require.

https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/nl/Documents/manufacturing/deloitte-nl-manufacturing-opportunities-for-the-fermentation-based-chemical-industry-2014.pdf

In the last few years a large number of companies have built bio-refineries. These projects suffered from a number of challenges such as: drop in oil and sugar prices, reduced production capacities, longer than expected commissioning and shakedown times, higher transportation costs as well as problems with feedstock heterogeneity. A few companies that have failed over the years are Verinium, Choren, Range Fuels, Qteros, Kior, Aurora Biofuels, Terrabon, KL Energy, Blue Fire and Coskata.

These challenges led to reduced investor and creditor appetite for these technologies.

The remaining companies have tried to reduce these risks by diversifying their production with both low-value commodity sugar and high-value chemicals, designing facilities that allow for different feedstocks, building bigger facilities to achieve economies of scale and being part of conglomerate companies with diversified cash flows and shared synergies.

Competitors

Cellulosic Sugar Companies

Proterro develops an algae-based photo-bioreactor to generate sugars directly rather than extracting it from a feedstock.

Naturally Scientific markets a patented solution which converts waste CO2, water and light in a photosynthetic reaction to grow a palisade layer plant cell culture that produces low-cost sugar.

Edeniq employs the enzymatic hydrolysis process to corn kernel fibers in order to produce low-cost sugars which can be used in ethanol production.

Renmatix has designed a supercritical hydrolysis process which uses water-based chemistry to provide a cleaner, faster and lower-cost method for deconstructing a wide variety of feedstock (wood biomass, agricultural residue, energy grasses) into cellulosic sugars and polymers.

Sweetwater has developed a patented enzymatic hydrolysis process which converts wood biomass and agricultural residues into cellulosic sugars and clean lignin.

Leaf Resources has developed a process of converting agricultural waste through the use of glycerol (a by-product of biodiesel production) into low-cost sugars.

American Process Inc. has developed an acid hydrolysis process for converting biomass into cellulosic sugars and ethanol.

Stora Enso is a pulp and paper company that has developed a process of converting wood biomass into different biomaterials such as lignin and cellulosic sugars.

BlueFire Renewables uses a concentrated acid hydrolysis process to convert cellulosic waste materials into intermediate sugars and ethanol. It’s subsidiary SucreSource in partnership with GS Caltex is building a 2 tonne per day construction and demolition debris feedstock facility to convert into cellulosic sugar and high-value chemicals.

General Biomass has developed a process based on enzymatic hydrolysis for converting the non-food raw material to sugars.

Fermentation and Fuel companies

ICM Inc is an equipment manufacturer with a technology that converted ground corn kernels into ethanol.

Quad County Corn Processors operates an ethanol plant and has developed a patented process for converting corn kernel fiber into ethanol.

Poet is one of the world’s largest ethanol and bio-refined product producers. Poet uses corn crop residue to produce ethanol.

Clariant is a specialized chemicals company focused on four business areas: care chemicals (consumer and industrial); catalysis; natural resources (oil & mining, minerals); and plastics & coatings. It has developed a process of converting agricultural residues into ethanol.

Beta Renewables has designed a process of converting rice straw and sugar cane bagasse into ethanol.

Dupont is a chemical conglomerate that owns a 30 million gallon ethanol bio-refinery that process sugarcane bagasse into ethanol. Their technology is able to be applied to various feedstocks such as sorghum, wheat straw, switchgrass, sugarcane straw and palm oil process residue.

Abengoa is a conglomerate with businesses units in energy, telecommunications, transportation, and the environment. Abengoa employs enzymatic hydrolysis to process corn and sorghum and sugar cane bagasse into bio-ethanol. It owns and operates 17 bio-refineries worldwide.

Iogen employs enzymatic hydrolysis to process crop residues, energy crops, and woody materials into bio-ethanol.

Fiberight has designed a process to convert municipal solid waste into cellulosic biofuel, plant energy and electricity through enzymatic hydrolysis.

Endicott Biofuels produces biodiesel from waste nutritional fat/oil.

Biochemicals

Solazyme has developed a proprietary technology to transform low-cost plant-based sugars from micro-algae into high-value oils for industrial and nutritional uses.

Gevo has developed bio-based alternatives to petroleum-based products such as isobutanol, jet fuel, plastics, polyesters and syntactic rubber. It aims to retrofit existing ethanol bio-refineries with their process.

Borregard processes wood into fine chemicals such as x-ray contrast media, cellulose, vanillin, omega-3 oil, yeast, lignin, and ethanol.

Green Biologics has developed a process to convert a wide range of sustainable feedstocks into green chemicals such as n-butanol and acetone through Clostridium microbial fermentation.

Virent has developed a catalytic process which can be employed with a wide variety of feedstocks to produce petroleum-based replacements such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and chemicals for plastics and fibers.

Myriant produces bio-based chemicals from cellulosic biomass such as succinic acid, acrylic acid, lactic acid, muconic acid and fumaric acid, which are basic chemical building blocks currently derived from petroleum.

Glucan Biorenewables has developed a process for converting wood chips and other biomass into furan derivatives.

Genomatica has developed a process for converting biomass into bio-BDO (for plastics), polyamide intermediates (nylon) and butadiene (tires).

Amyris Biotechnologies is a biochemicals company which converts plant sugars into biopharma, nutritional and industrial chemicals. Its first product was the conversion of low-cost sugars into artemisinin and effective anti-malaria drug.

Agrivida engineers biomass feedstock in order to improve the extraction of plant-based cellulosic sugars.

Blue Marble Biomaterials aims to create specialty chemicals from renewable biomass sources.

Blackwood Technology converts woody biomass and agricultural residue into pellets that can be used as a replacement of coal.

Chempolis has developed a technology that enables papermaking fibers, bioethanol and biochemicals to be produced sustainably from non-wood and non-food biomasses such as straw, bagasse, corn stover, and bamboo.

Ensyn produces a bio-crude from forest and agricultural residues using its proprietary thermal technology. Ensyn’s bio-crude has been in commercial production for over 25 years for the generation of food ingredients, natural chemicals, and heating fuels.

Tesoro is an independent petroleum refiner that has invested into bio-refinery companies such as Fulcrum Bioenergy, Virent, and Ensyn.

Conclusion

Comet Biorefining has developed a method of converting corn stover and wheat straw into low-cost cellulosic sugar. They are in the process of finalizing their feedstock supply by signing up farmers from the area to be both suppliers of feedstock and investors in the project. In addition, Comet has been successful in obtain a $10.9 million grant and raising equity to build the bio-refinery. Further Comet has entered into an off-take agreement with BioAmber, where BioAmber will purchase the resulting sugar to be used in its succinic acid process. Sole reliance on BioAmber might lead to concerns in the future if BioAmber’s troubles increase, and force Comet to sell its sugars to off-takers further away. This could result in reduced revenues due to higher transportation costs. From a high-level view, it looks like Comet is on the right track and has achieved most of its milestones in order to build the bio-refinery.

Comet is aiming to help meet the demand for bio-chemicals which are meant to replace the current supply petroleum derived chemicals. This was meant to be a solution to the high oil prices as well as the shift to more environmentally friendly products.

Comet is following in the steps ethanol producers over the last decade. A lot of these producers came in to meet the growing demand for ethanol but failed due to technological issues, higher costs, feedstock supply issues and low economics. This has led to a round of consolidation and bankruptcies in the bio-ethanol sector.

High-level economics of the project are showing high single digit returns which might not be enough to compensate for the higher technological and execution risks of the project.

Comet Biorefining is using the enzymatic hydrolysis process to convert biomass to sugar. This is one of the most popular processes currently used in the market. However, it suffers from higher consumables costs and low flexibility in the feedstock. Other companies are pursuing processes which aim to reduce the consumable costs and allow for greater flexibility in the feedstock supply.

Comet Biorefining has positioned itself as a low-cost producer, with low-cost being its main competitive advantage. It might struggle in maintaining this position as new learnings, technologies, and consolidation spread through the market. Comet has only one patent application, and with the different technological paths to achieving sugars from biomass, this does not provide any significant protection from competitive forces.

At this stage, Comet Biorefining might be protected from the competition due to having locked up its feedstock supply, off-take as well as the limited impact on the global sugar supply. However, it will struggle to grow and scale-up in the market with the high number of competitors.

In my opinion, Comet Biorefining might be a good project economics play but will struggle with growing and scaling up. I would pass on this projects and focus on more integrated players which both produce high-value biochemicals and use low-cost feedstock. This would reduce some of the risks and provide diversification and better competitor protection. For a project play investment, I would focus on efficiently executing the project with a possible exit later on to an integrated bio-chemicals player.