EATS, SHOOTS 'N' LEAVES: Fast Company Makes a Major Amyris Fail

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday February 21, 2012 - 08:37:00 PM

Back in 1995, two former Harvard Business Review editors created Fast Company, which soon became the rock star of the publishing world, selling in 2000 to a branch of German publishing giant Bertelsmann for the biggest sum ever paid for a magazine, $350 million.

It’s now owned by the founder and chief executive of Morningstar, the leasing rating agency in the world of bonds.

Every year they come up with a list of Most Innovative Companies, described thusly by Wikipedia

For their Most Innovative Companies feature, Fast Company assesses thousands of businesses based on creativity, real-world impact, risk taking, and execution to create a list of just 50 companies. 

Well, they’ve just come out with this year's list, and guess what Berkeley-created company landed amongst the elite? 

That would be Amyris, the outfit started by a UC Berkeley “bioengineer” and initially bankrolled by Bill Gates to use genetically altered microbes to create a cheap antimalarial drug, which didn’t turn out to be cheap, the switched over to using gene-tweaked bugs to produce fuel. [Our previous stories on the company are here.] 

Here are the reasons Fast Company picked Amyris for this year’s top 50 list, reported by Rachel Z. Arndt: 

Last year, the California-based biotech firm opened its first commercial renewable-chemicals plant outside São Paulo. In 2012, that facility should pump out 50 million liters of sugarcane-derived farnesene. That’s enough to power many of the city’s 15,000 buses, replacing the standard high-in-sulfur fuel, which spews noxious fumes. “Carbon emissions are reduced at least 50%,” says Amyris cofounder and CTO Neil Renninger. The company also announced a deal last fall to make sugar-based rubber for Michelin tires (set to roll out in 2015). Sweet. 

There’s only one problem, which we’ve reported in detail: The company’s predicted fuel output was a pipe dream, and real 2012 production figures will be far, far smaller, with none of it devoted to fuel. Rather, Amyris will peddle the fruit of genetically bacteria as a chemical for the manufacture of perfumes, cosmetics, and such. Let us quote from MIT Technology Review

Amyris said it’s giving up making fuels too. Instead, it will to focus on higher value products, such as moisturizers for cosmetics. 

The company learned firsthand just how difficult it is to achieve the kind of yields seen in lab tests in large-scale production. In an update call for investors, CEO John Melo said he is “humbled by the lessons we have learned.” 

The company’s dismal performance is reflected in the price of its shares, which were matching its all-time low of $6.06 this morning, rebounding to $6.14. That’s down from a record high of $33.85 little over a year ago. 

So it looks like Fast Company is slow on the uptake. We trust any potential Amyris investors will do a little further digging before they take the plunge. 

Now we can understand that magazine deadlines might have made it difficult to change what came out in print, but really, there’s no excuse for post bad information on the magazine’s website. 

Hope the company’s owner is more exacting when it comes to rating bonds.