Dillon, Solazyme’s president and chief technology officer, hopes to be able to produce Soladiesel™ on a large scale and at a price competitive with fossil-based fuels within two or three years. But the San Francisco-based company he founded with a college pal six months after graduating from Duke Law “is well below the necessary cost for a lot of other products that are going to make it to market before the large scale transportation fuel,” he adds.
“We are a renewable oil-production technology company first and foremost,” says Dillon, who points out that Solazyme’s technology can be used to make any product made with oil as a raw material, from diesel, jet, and home-heating fuel, to plastics, cosmetic ingredients, edible oils, and cleaning supplies.
Solazyme’s unique process — featured in the Sundance award-winning documentary “Fields of Fuel” — involves growing algae in the dark and feeding them large quantities of carbohydrates, which they then convert to oil. It bypasses algae’s natural process of converting photosynthetic energy to glucose, and then to oil for the purposes of storing energy, Dillon explains. “We use a combination of things like genetic engineering and fermentation processes similar to the way beer is brewed or ethanol is made. We optimize the oil-production process to get this stuff made at very high volume and low cost.”
Using waste-stream cellulosic sugar as feedstock for the algae — everything from wood chips and sawdust to corn stalks and molasses — helps minimize the carbon footprint involved in the manufacturing process and sidesteps criticism about a “food vs. fuel” trade-off that can be levied against biofuels like ethanol. “We don’t use carbohydrates that compete with food,” says Dillon. “Our technology can take a pile of sawdust and turn it into oil that can be used to make diesel fuel, or into a high-nutrition edible oil that can be used to feed people.” Many people derive a high percentage of their daily caloric intake from cooking oil, which has tripled in price in the last few years, he notes.
“We can make food and we can make fuel. We built this company to solve problems.”
The idea for using algae as a source of renewable energy first occurred to Dillon while he was pursuing a PhD in human genetics at the University of Utah in the mid-1990s. “The Human Genome Project was in full swing, but I wanted to use genetics for things that were a little more creative,” he recalls. “I thought renewable energy sounded interesting.” He “stumbled across algae” while reviewing scientific literature to find out how biotechnology might be applied to renewable energy. But while he could see the potential in algae, he “didn’t think the technology was really there yet.” He realized that the technology had arrived when he read an issue of the journal Nature devoted to the Human Genome Project during his 1L spring break.
“I read all the highly technical stuff about how they cloned all these genes and how they organized it and the highthroughput robotics they used in order to systematically analyze an enormous amount of genetic information, and I realized that you could apply all of this to algae, if you chose to,” Dillon recalls with obvious excitement. Taking advantage of Duke’s interdisciplinary strength, he arranged to earn law school credit while “learning about algae” from a leading researcher, Biology Professor Elizabeth Harris, now a member of Solazyme’s scientific advisory board.
Having entered law school specifically with a view to getting a “useful tool” to help two Silicon Valley novices launch a biotechnology company — his co-founder, Jonathan Wolfson, serves as CEO — Dillon made that his focus during his 2L and 3L years at Duke Law.
“At the end of my first year, I sat down with Steven Schwarcz [Stanley A. Star Professor of Law and Business] and asked him what courses I should take to help me start a biotech company, rather than those he would recommend if I planned to become a patent attorney in a law firm,” says Dillon, who wrote Solazyme’s first — successful — patent application while a 2L and now manages the company’s legal affairs and intellectual property portfolio, in addition to his other duties.
Observing that crafting persuasive arguments is at the heart of everything he does in a start-up company operating in a capital-intensive area, Dillon adds, with a laugh, that he couldn’t have built his company without the skills he learned at Duke. “I don’t think people realize that when they say, ‘You’ve got a biotech company. Why did you bother going to law school?’”