Sapphire Energy’s 4 Pillars to Success

Sapphire Energy has four pillars that define the company; yet the over arching pillar that truly drives them is the concept of scale. But before they could begin overcoming that challenge, they first had to decide what kind of company they wanted to be. The answer  – an energy company.

Sapphire is an energy company that just happened to land on algae as their primary feedstock. The company was founded in 2007 out of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego under the research direction of Steve Mayfield, who has since become the director for the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, also housed at UC San Diego.

According to the company’s Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Tim Zenk, whom I met with during my San Diego Algae Tour, Sapphire is a very large operation. They have their research headquarters in San Diego, an engineering team working out of an office in Orange County, CA, a very large demonstration plot in Las Cruces, NM, and they are about to break ground on a very large demonstration facility in Columbus, NM.

“This is a very large lab by algae standards,” said Zenk. “It’s no question its the largest in the world.”

To date, Sapphire has raised more than $200 million from private investors, with three major investments coming from family venture funds. “Three family wealth trusts gives us a lot of flexibility that allows us to pick the right partners and allows us a long runway to develop the technology and commercialize it,” explained Zenk who believes the company will be at full production by 2018.

He noted that standard venture capital isn’t really conducive to energy. “We think of things in 30 year life cycles, not five years,” said Zenk.

Zenk described how Sapphire sees the energy problem. “We really view this as an agricultural problem and we see Sapphire at the intersection between biotechnologies, agriculture and energy. And our view is we need to learn something from the two most scalable businesses in the world and that’s energy and ag. Our view is algae can be cultivated in the same manner as, or in a similar manner, as you do other products that grow in water,” concluded Zenk.

And this leads us to the four pillars of Sapphire, which according to Mike Mendez a Co-Founder of the company and the VP of Technology, they are developing an energy solution that is scalability, is not produced from a food crop, does not use arable land, and does not use fresh water.

You can learn more about Sapphire’s four pillars in my interview excerpt with Mike Mendez. Click here to see photos from my San Diego Algae Tour Photo Album”>San Diego Algae Tour. Sapphire's 4 Pillars to Success

6 thoughts on “Sapphire Energy’s 4 Pillars to Success

  1. I couldn’t agree more with Mike’s assessment that there is no way to promote an energy crop that will interfere with arable land and drinking water. Those two resources are already dwindling, so the last thing we can afford to do is impinge on what remains to produce biofuels. How appropriate is it, then, that algae will happily grow in brackish water in the middle of the desert? Indeed, algae can also clean up industrial and agricultural waste streams by “eating” nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon dioxide!

    Speaking from a biological standpoint, algae are the world’s most efficient photosynthetic organisms, so why not take advantage of their natural ability to convert sunlight into energy, and capture that process to produce something of value? Plus, as the knowledge surrounding the black box of photosynthesis becomes clear, these organisms could be genetically modified or induced to maximize photosynthetic capacity and lipid production.

    Also, it’s important not to overlook algae as a means to produce hydrogen gas as well in the anaerobic phase. Consider this: during the aerobic growth phase the algae consume waste products as mentioned, and as the algae begin to die, lo and behold, they produce hydrogen gas! Indeed, in addition to their role in producing biodiesel today, we may see algae playing a fundamental role in the hydrogen economy of the future.

    Thoughts?

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