NEWARK, Del. (AP) — The relationship between teacher and student can be likened to a two-member team, particularly on the doctorate level in a concentration as dense as biotechnical discovery.
When a certain chemistry exists, it opens up the opportunity for something truly novel - inventing a technology inside an academic lab that later can be taken outside to market.
That's the kind of relationship Terry Papoutsakis, the Eugene DuPont Chair professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware has fostered with his former Ph.D. student, Bryan Tracy.
Papoutsakis, a trusted adviser and an expert in microbial biotechnologies, founded Elcriton, a biotech firm in Newark, with Tracy, the firm's chief executive officer and lead scientist, a little more than three years ago.
The startup creates bacteria, microorganisms and genetically modified bacteria, for chemical companies to use to make fuel or chemicals from renewable sources.
"I was doing my Ph.D. in chemical engineering in the laboratory of Terry, a UD professor in chemical engineering," Tracy explained. "Along the way we decided to start up a company that would translate technologies that were developing in his academic lab for the previous 25 years."
The privately owned Elcriton, which has acquired $1.3 million in grants and uses seed money to continue research and development, is a leader in genetically modifying a type of bacteria called Clostridia, Tracy said. The early-stage company's success is tied to the technology of genetically engineering strains of the bacteria to be more efficient at producing n-Butanol - a colorless liquid that is easy on the environment.
N-Butanol is used in chemicals and products including plastics, lotions, soaps, detergents, cosmetics, drugs; as an additive in fuel, brake fluids, floor polishes and textiles.
"We license access to our bacteria," Tracy said, noting butanol is a $6 billion dollar a year market. "That's the market we serve and it has a compounding average growth rate of about 12 percent in China and I believe with the U.S. economy coming back that it will continue to increase."
The large consumption is in paint, varnishes and lacquers, he said.
As the U.S. market grows, and demand increases from emerging markets such as Germany and Israel, Elcriton continues to flourish, they said. Still, further opportunity exists in the biofuels arena, a $60 billion-per-year market.
"Once our microorganisms become even more efficient, we do have a very real opportunity to sell the finished n-Butanol into the fuel market, not just the chemical market," Tracy, 31, said from inside the New Castle-based lab on Reads Way. "The bigger volume market opportunities are in transportation fuels and also jet fuels."
The startup reached a pivotal point in 2010, the year Cathay Industrial Biotech, the largest biobutanol producer, licensed access to Elcriton's innovative technology, Clostridia, Tracy said. That was when the firm gained commercial traction.
By 2011, the two had moved out of Delaware Technology Park in Newark, expanded to eight employees and moved into a modest-sized lab in New Castle.
Elcriton has also set its sights on another opportunity - duckweed, a tiny plant that grows in water. The aquatic plant can be used for a multitude of purposes: as a building block to produce massive quantities of biomass; an eco-friendly replacement for soy as livestock feed; a natural nutrient absorber to remove excess nutrients from waterways caused by runoff from crops and livestock waste; or grown for ethanol production.
"In the ethanol industry, duckweed is an equivalent of corn stover, made up of the same components. So ideally, duckweed can be grown to a large enough scale that it can be fed into a fermentation process as an opportunity," Tracy said. "You can grow it at a really fast rate and the biomass itself can exhibit an ideal composition for feeding to fermentations that produce commodity and intermediate chemicals. Moreover, duckweed growth consumes nutrients from our impaired watersheds."
Elcriton has demonstrated at small scale the benefits of growing duckweed to remove nutrients that are plaguing inland bays. They have proved it to be an excellent feedstock for butanol fermentation, and a suitable protein feed supplement for poultry and other livestock production.
"We're now focused on scaling our cultivation system in efforts to generate reasonable amounts of biomass so we can test it in various product opportunities," he said.
Today, Tracy is expected to speak before the Council on Development Finance, the financial decision-making arm of the Delaware Economic Development Office. There, he will seek approval for a $50,000 matching grant from the Delaware Strategic Fund under the Delaware Technical Innovation Program.
If approved, Elcriton will take steps to cultivate duckweed on a large scale and find the best commercial opportunities, Tracy said.