AT AMYRIS BIOTECHNOLOGIES, Jack Newman PhD’01 is focused on some of the world’s biggest problems. He co-founded the company in 2003 with the goal of creating a more cost-effective treatment for malaria, and after some notable successes toward that end, he has turned his eye on developing new renewable sources of energy. As senior vice president of research, Newman talks about the unique blend of science, idealism and business savvy that underlies the company’s lofty goals.
You’ve had some enormous successes in your career. Where do ideas this big come from?
I have always enjoyed studying science, but I was inspired to seek a career that played an important role in world stewardship by where I grew up. Cape Cod is one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world. To me, it represents a microcosm of what’s happening to all of our planet’s beautiful places—an environment fighting a difficult battle with pollution.
How did you go from there to starting Amyris?
I had been working in bioremediation—using microbes to clean up environmental waste—but there was a gulf between the technology and the marketplace that was fairly impossible to overcome. All the technology in the world really does no good without a viable business model, a way to take that cool new technology out of the lab and apply it into the impactful realm of the marketplace.
While doing a postdoc at the University of California-Berkley I met a few like-minded scientists, Kinkead Reiling and Neil Renninger, that wanted to solve real-world problems. We kind of stumbled into a real-world problem that our science could address. Strains of malaria were developing that were resistant to chloroquine, the reigning malarial treatment. To treat these new, increasingly life-threatening strains, medicine was turning to artemisinin, a pricey compound from wormwood plants that takes 14 months to produce. So we rallied around the idea of synthesizing an affordable alternative as a starting mission for our new company. With help from a grant from the Gates Foundation, Amyris met that goal, and we expect that this product will begin wide distribution within the next few years. Our process will be a stable second source to the plant-derived artemisinin for life-saving drugs.
How did you synthesize it?
The technology is based on isoprenoids, which are chemical compounds produced by a plant that was cultivated to replace sandalwood as an essential oil when it became expensive and scarce. That’s where the company name comes from—amyris is an oil derived from that plant.
What can we expect next?
Well, we thought about ways to deploy the same technology we used to solve the artemisinin problem. Of the countless possible applications, our new goal was use synthetic biology to engineer a biofuel with more energy and less carbon emissions that could replace the fuel in the engines we use now. We figured out how to do it on paper, then at small scale in the lab. Now we are producing it by the barrel and scaling up in California and Brazil. Within two to three years, we expect this fuel to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 80 percent for every gallon of petroleum it replaces.