How Deepak Dugar is Fermenting Change in the Chemical Industry

By displacing petroleum-derived material with engineered, bio-based alternatives, Visolis aims to create renewable products for the circular economy. With key pieces of the puzzle in place, its founder, Deepak “Sultan of Scale” Dugar, is moving from pilot scale to mass production.

The device on which you’re reading this article includes plastics built from petroleum-based feedstocks. The same is probably true of much of the clothing you’re wearing. And perhaps the soaps or cosmetics you used this morning. We are surrounded by products made by petroleum-derived materials, and demand for these products stokes demand for oil extraction. In 2015, when Deepak Dugar entered Cyclotron Road as part of Cohort One, his aim was to disrupt that cycle by commercializing advances he had made at the intersection of synthetic biology and catalysis — research he had bootstrapped, toiling nights and weekends in a rented Boston lab, while working as a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Deepak Dugar at Cyclotron Road’s Activate 2018 event. Photo: Paul Mueller

Now, those nights and weekends are paying off. Dugar’s Berkeley-based startup, Visolis, is manufacturing bio-based feedstocks for a range of specialty products. It has developed new routes to producing key molecules that serve as chemical feedstocks for polymers, solvents, and resins. And most importantly, the startup is positioned to scale up its production, and its impact, significantly.

“We’ve already demonstrated that our bespoke microbe can use multiple feedstocks, such as sugars from corn or waste biomass including sugarcane bagasse,” explains Dugar, who while at MIT earned both a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and an M.B.A. “And the key to our success will be that we can make these key ingredients at a lower price, with reduced environmental impact, and more reliably, compared to conventional petrochemical pathways.”

Visolis has begun producing bio-based ingredients for high-end cosmetic products; high-performance polyurethanes; and a solvent for polymer recycling and processing. This solvent is designed to replace petrochemical counterparts that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as being highly toxic to human and environmental health.

So focused is Dugar on growing Visolis, some of his colleagues at Cyclotron Road have jokingly dubbed him The Sultan of Scale. But the nickname is starting to mirror reality: this fall, Visolis acquired the majority of assets from BioAmber, a renewable chemical manufacturer. The purchase, made through a joint venture between Visolis and chemical company LCY, was completed in late October of this year, five months after BioAmber filed for bankruptcy.

Operating as LCY Biotechnology, the new venture will in the coming months restart operations of BioAmber’s main production facility, a $142 million plant that had been producing bio-based succinic acid, an important building block for a range of petrochemicals.

“This facility will serve as a proving ground to demonstrate that Visolis’s technologies, based on our unique combination of biology and catalysis, can be scaled to reach commercial volumes,” says Dugar. “This is the most efficient route to commercialization because it accelerates our time-to-market compared to building a new plant from scratch.” The acquired plant’s current annual production capacity is 33,000 tons.

“Deepak is intensely driven — not just to reach his commercial goals but to fundamentally change the way products are made, displacing our reliance on petrochemical ingredients by introducing powerful and truly innovative bio-based ingredients,” says Cyclotron Road’s executive director Ilan Gur. “We’re really pleased — and not at all surprised — to see Visolis kicking into high gear with this joint venture.”

Dugar in the ABPDU labs.

Todd Pray, program head at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU), a facility run by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that collaborates with researchers in the bio-products industry, the National Labs, and academia to optimize and scale production of bio-based chemicals, materials, and fuels, has been working with Dugar since his days as a Cyclotron Road fellow. At ABPDU, Dugar and Pray worked together to scale production of the first Visolis microbe to pilot scale, and then, through fermentation bioprocess development, to produce significant quantities.

Pray notes the speed at which Visolis has matured. “They’ve shown a rapid progression from lab scale to this kind of commercial infrastructure,” he says, referring to the BioAmber acquisition. “It’s been a quick turnaround on the technology.”

Market research firm McKinsey expects bio-based products to make up 11 percent of the $3.4 trillion global chemical market by 2020. Yet, the nascent market is also risky, and Visolis will be placed under the microscope following this bold move. People may wonder: why can Visolis thrive, despite BioAmber’s downturn? But Visolis is taking a markedly different tack than BioAmber did. It is entering the market with much higher-value products, produced at lower volumes but higher margins, compared to BioAmber’s approach, which focused on commodity chemicals.

LCY operates a number of polymer manufacturing facilities around the world, including a major plant in Houston, making it a strategic partner to Visolis in the biochemical value chain. “LCY is a good long-term partner for us and is focused on long-term sustainable growth. We at Visolis bring technical know-how and biochemical market experience to the joint venture, while LCY brings its considerable sales and marketing expertise, as well as strengths in operational efficiencies,” says Dugar.