Biotech’s third wave


Minneapolis Star Tribune
By Thomas Lee
May 3, 2009

Green chemistry start-ups in the Midwest ramp up to prove they can move from the lab to the factory.

The numbers were grim but the setting tantalizingly hopeful.

In February, officials asked executives at Segetis Inc. in Golden Valley if they could host a news conference by Dan McElroy, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, to release the latest state unemployment figures.

State officials didn’t say why. They didn’t have to.

On a day when Minnesota said it lost 13,000 jobs, pushing Minnesota’s unemployment rate to a 25-year high, Segetis’ new pilot production plant was pumping out "green" chemicals used in plastics, nylon, and foam — bio-based materials that experts say could become the state’s next growth industry.

Green chemistry, also known as industrial biotechnology, is often called the "third wave of biotechnology," following genetically modified crops and biofuels such as ethanol. Through chemical reactions, scientists can create new molecules that form the building blocks of non-petroleum-based materials used in everyday products such as sneakers, car seats and shampoo bottles.

"This is an area where Minnesota can play a global leadership role in everything from basic science to manufacturing, leveraging its considerable strengths in material science, engineering and processing," according to Destination 2025, a report prepared by the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota and Deloitte Consulting. "Minnesota’s strengths can be exploited to manufacture these new materials into a myriad of new consumer products and various forms of packaging materials."

In addition to Segetis, the state is home to NatureWorks of Minnetonka, a joint venture between Cargill Inc. and Teijin Limited of Japan. The venture makes a biopolymer made from natural plant sugars.

And Draths Corp. of Plymouth is using microbiological and chemical processes to produce nylon fibers and engineered resins. Segetis and Draths are still in the prerevenue stage while NatureWorks is generating revenue…

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