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Novel fermentation process taps industry waste, saves resources

A 2007 report by the United Nations Environment Programme forecast the complete destruction of Indonesia’s forests by 2022 due to deforestation for palm oil, an edible vegetable oil often used in biodiesel.

This rapid deforestation brings a slew of environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emission and habitat destruction. Thomas Kelleher, CEO of Xylome Corporation, believes that destruction could be slowed by renewably sourcing palm oil from certain industrial waste streams.

Xylome Corporation, an early-stage startup based in Madison, has developed novel fermentation technology that can produce high-value byproducts such as ethanol or palm oil from existing organic waste-material streams using unconventional yeasts. The company was profiled as part of an ongoing business series done this fall by UW-Madison students.

For centuries, one species of yeast has gifted the food industry with bread and beer through a process called fermentation, where sugars and starches are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

“There’s only half-a-dozen types of yeast currently used for all manufacturing everywhere,” said Kelleher. “We’ve realized that there are thousands of yeasts which have each evolved from their own environments.”

With decades of accumulated industry expertise, Xylome’s scientists have developed a method to mix and match genes from these unusual yeasts to create customized species that can “get more mileage” out of an ethanol plant’s grain purchases.

Ethanol plants already utilize common yeast’s fermentation capabilities in systems to produce large volumes of pure ethanol from the energy-rich glucose sugars and simple saccharide starches found in plant-based feedstocks.

However, these conventional yeast cells can’t break down the complex sugar contents of the plant feedstocks like glycerol and cellulosic materials typically lost in a plant’s waste stream. “That’s where our microbial systems take over,” said Kelleher.

The company has primarily focused initial efforts on adoption into the ethanol industry, but its complex, multistep fermentation systems have similar revenue-generating applications in a wide range of industries.

“Almost every food processing industry has a waste stream,” Kelleher said. “We can find yeast or generate microbial systems to convert any of those waste streams into something more valuable.”

The Xylome team is helping clients with aseptic design and pure-culture process consulting, but implementing its microbial platforms in large-scale manufacturing settings is the main pursuit.

Kelleher plans to work closely with ethanol plants to improve Xylome’s process, demonstrate yields, and develop a compelling case for on-site factory construction with partners who understand fermentation and yeast.

Xylome seeks to demonstrate its capabilities and begin to amass a sales force to pull the company into the industry. Revenue from royalties on intellectual property will be pumped back into the creation of more renewable resource channels, according to Kelleher.

Current work at Xylome Corporation is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Wisconsin SBIR Advance Program. They will be presenting at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, which starts today.

Eventually moving forward from ethanol and palm oil production, Kelleher suggested a logical next step for Xylome is government work in the fish oil business producing omega-3 fatty acids to grow salmon in fish farms.

Despite the colossal scope of accessible markets, Xylome’s mission remains simple – “Renewing tomorrow today” by creating revenue generating solutions for organic waste.

"We are solving real-world problems and striving to create compelling value for our clients and customers," he said.

By Liam Selfors
Selfors will graduate in December from the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.


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