BioWorld International Correspondent

Micromill System Inc., a Canadian developer of mobile logging and processing equipment, is investing €10 million (US$13.8 million) in a newly formed joint venture with the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway, to commercialize enzyme technology for producing cellulosic ethanol, which was developed at the university.

Operating from a bioincubator at NUI Galway, the new company, called Eirzyme Ltd., will further optimize and scale up the technology, which is based on proprietary strains of the filamentous fungus Talaromyces emersonii. It was developed by Maria Tuohy, senior lecturer in NUI Galway's biochemistry department.

Tuohy and her team, who reported the first cloning and characterization of cellulase and hemicellulase genes from T. emersonii in 2003, have developed strains of the fungus that can digest cellulose and other polysaccharides from multiple sources at high efficiencies. "That is the key differentiating factor," Eirzyme director Daniel O'Mahony, who is also director of technology transfer at NUI Galway, told BioWorld International.

Eirzyme's proprietary fungal strains can be switched to produce ethanol from different feedstocks by manipulating the growth parameters of the engineered fungal strains to express different cocktails of enzymes.

"We can dial up the strains to do different things," O'Mahony said.

The company is adopting a hybrid business model. It will engage directly in the production of cellulosic ethanol from certain sources, such as woody biomass, while out-licensing the underlying technology for other feedstocks.

"It will be a combination of being vertically integrated in some situations and in other situations, where the right partnership presents itself, we'll take that route," O'Mahony said.

Right now, the company is scaling up the technology to work in a 100 liter pilot production system at NUI Galway. It hopes to be able to move directly from that to an industrial scale 25,000 liter fermenter.

"We've got some firm ideas of what would be required to bring the technology to that particular place," O'Mahony said.

Donald Causton, founder and president of privately held Summerland, British Columbia-based Micromill, is Eirzyme's CEO.

The company's North American connection will enable it to explore additional funding opportunities, O'Mahony said.