Updated on 18 March 2013
Dr Sean Simpson, co-founder & CSO, LanzaTech, gets BioSpectrum Asia Pacific Awards 2013 in the Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 category
With the need for green fuel technologies growing bigger every day, New Zealand company LanzaTech is providing an alternative solution to the energy crisis. Stepping away from the conventional methods of producing biofuel, which have their own limitations, the company converts waste industrial gases into biofuel through a proprietary technology.
LanzaTech's journey from a lab in Auckland to industrial-scale operations across continents is also a personal journey for Dr Sean Simpson, the co-founder and chief scientific officer of LanzaTech, from being a researcher to being an entrepreneur. "We identified that gases rich in carbon monoxide and hydrogen that are produced as a waste by a range of large industrial processes are an ideal resource from which low carbon, low-cost fuels can be made," says Dr Simpson, who is a trained biologist. With this idea in mind, he then identified and optimized a microbe that could make use of such gases. "I would say that the combination of this perspective on resources and a microbial process that could make use of gases was the basis of the idea," he adds.
But the toughest part, in his own words, was raising funds to support the science.
"There was, in the beginning, this difficult conundrum. In order to secure funds, we needed to have proof-of-concept, but in order to have a proof-of-concept, we needed funds," explains Dr Simpson, about the difficulty of the situation. "Therefore, the first job was as much marketing and sales as it was science, since we needed to be able to give people enough confidence to support our dream, with little or no tangible evidence that what we were dreaming about could become a reality."
He adds that they were fortunate to have found "some very supportive early investors who were prepared to take a leap of faith with us". However, the challenging part of this transition from being a bench scientist to being an entrepreneur with a science-based idea was establishing the commercial value of the idea and then getting others excited about it. "For many scientists, this is a rather difficult skill," he says. "Walking into a room with what was considered a wild and crazy concept to ask for money was a challenge.
The other challenge was the process scale-up itself. "Ours is a first-of-a-kind process operating in a rather extreme industrial environment. We don't have any models for how to make this process scale up. We have had to develop all of this ourselves," he says. "We have done this and it is with tremendous pride that we say that LanzaTech has successfully scaled up the fermentation process using gases produced by steel mills." The journey to commercial success is not over yet as LanzaTech plans to reach that stage by the end of this year.