For millennia, civilization has depended on a handful of plant oils for food, medicine, and agriculture, including canola, soy, peanut, coconut, palm, corn, sunflower, and olive oil. Today, these same natural triglyceride vegetable oils serve as the building blocks for a wide variety of fuels, chemicals, foods, personal care, and industrial products.
Checkerspot wants to use synthetic biology to do better than that, for the sake of nature. Its goal is to not just reduce the environmental cost of extracting natural oils, but also engineer oils for improved materials that nature hasn’t yet come up with.
Checkerspot is about increasing the types of vegetable oils we can make
It is estimated that there are over 500 types of fatty acids in natural oilseeds, but we have been able to use only about 14 fatty acids. This is because most of these oilseeds will never be domesticated and grown as crops, and the oils may not have the ideal composition for any particular use. Achieving the desired compositions from plant oils can be energy-intensive, expensive, wasteful, and require use of hazardous chemicals.
Checkerspot, which recently closed its series seed financing for over $5 million, is expanding the types of triglyceride oils that microbes can produce, specifically for developing entirely new classes of materials with novel physical properties and superior performance.
To do that, the team is taking advantage of original oil producers: the microalgae, organisms that first evolved the pathways that make oil in soybean, palm, canola, and coconut. Checkerspot developed a process to make oils via fermentation, with far lower environmental impact and carbon footprint than the petroleum-based products they replace.
Diatoms are photosynthetic, eukaryotic microalgae that contain a wide variety of lipids, including triglycerides and free fatty acids. Checkerspot is engineering microalgae like these to bring new sustainable, high performance materials to the market. Credit: Kevin Mackenzie, University of Aberdeen
A technology platform that enables the design – at a molecular level – of new materials
Checkerspot, a graduate of the Illumina Accelerator program, is named after a butterfly native to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where two of its team members actively volunteer with the Mountain Rescue Association. Their enthusiasm for the outdoors inspired them to focus initially on the outdoor recreation market, for which they expect to soon announce some new products.
Their technology platform includes a molecular foundry to engineer microalgae that express novel building blocks (triglycerides), that is integrated with a chemistry and materials science capability, and finally, a fabrication capability where they can prototype and test their products. DIC Corporation recently announced a partnership with Checkerspot to create new products and formulations for adhesives, coatings, printing inks, and lubricants businesses.
We spoke with CEO Charles Dimmler about why it’s exciting to be working at the intersection of biology, chemistry, materials science, and data science to develop bio-based advanced materials. You can meet him at SynBioBeta 2018: The Global Synthetic Biology Summit in San Francisco, October 1–3, part of Synthetic Biology Week.
Can you tell us about your projects at Checkerspot?
Our current projects are focused on commercial applications informed by partners and customers who identified needs in the market. Our platform spans synthetic biology, materials science and fabrication and is linked with a product and design-centric focus. We recently announced our first joint development agreement with DIC Corporation, a Japanese chemical company. The initial project in that partnership is focused on the development of new, high performance polyols. We have another partnership focused on developing and commercializing textile coatings with Beyond Surface Technologies. We expect to soon announce some new product applications in the Outdoor Recreation market where high performance materials are important, and where consumers tend to have a deep emotional connection.
What are you most proud of? What are some of the most interesting materials you developed or are working to develop? What are your favorite applications?
I am most proud of the team and the community we are building around Checkerspot. Checkerspot is about innovation and creativity to create high performance materials. At its core, though, it all comes down to passionate people having conviction they can contribute in their own way to leverage technology that ultimately enables better products. What we are doing seems to be resonating and our holistic approach of combining these technologies is already producing some interesting breakthroughs: from high performance foams with enhanced physical properties to better coatings for textiles.
What do you hope to achieve in the next few years?
We see a hunger from consumer brands for new materials with authentic performance benefits that enable differentiation in the market. Based on the foundation we have set with our technology development, IP and initial commercial traction, we intend to expand well beyond our initial applications focus in Outdoor Recreation. Over the next few years, we hope to have multiple commercial proof points where we have empowered product developers with the ability to design materials with intention. For us, this means that instead of relying on existing, available materials from a catalog they can describe performance specifications that we can deliver against because we are able to tap into a diversity of molecular building blocks previously inaccessible at scale. We see a future where consumer product and industrial designers will be thinking about designing their input materials at the molecular level, with the assistance of biologists, chemists, materials engineers and computer scientists.
How are you using synthetic biology technologies to design new materials at a molecular level?
“We see triglycerides as molecular scaffolds. Our technology platform leverages an understanding of biology, chemistry, materials science and fabrication, and through it we believe we can imbue these molecules with properties that dramatically enhance the performance of Checkerspot’s materials. As we grow, we’ll continue to innovate around this platform, further developing its precision to allow us to penetrate into more and more applications areas,” said Scott Franklin CSO Checkerspot.
We use a range of well-understood biotechnology methods, including classical strain improvement, traditional molecular biology techniques, as well as new gene synthesis and modification tools. We are fairly agnostic about which technologies we deploy, so long as they deliver, and do so cost-effectively. We believe that offering choices to partners with transparency is going to be a big part of the future of converging technologies and bringing new materials to market.
What challenges persist in the convergence of materials science and biology, and what progress has your team – or other peers – made in overcoming them?
We are seeing more doors opening to solutions than offering challenges at this point in the convergence of all of these disciplines. For us the trick has been starting with the end product in mind, using reverse engineering to test our hypotheses and then applying our innovation platform to develop those needed inputs. We also believe that while data is key and informs our path forward, we need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and experiment in the lab and try different approaches. There is also some art to this. Rapid prototyping and learning by making little, incremental, low-cost bets has worked well for us. We have teams laser focused on the applications development and performance aspects, and everything is measured and that high quality data guides our iterations.
What are some of the most interesting things you learned as a graduate of the Illumina Accelerator program?
Access to the technology and team at Illumina’s state of the art facility truly did accelerate our development. At Illumina, we completed whole genome sequencing and transcriptomics that as far as we know had never before been done. Up until now in the study of microalgae most of the classification has come from the practice of studying the morphology of the cell – “how does it look under a microscope.” With the Illumina tools and platform, we were able to precisely determine the type of microalgae by its code and potential usefulness in our platform. Now that we have the roadmap for these microbes the journey is getting really interesting.
How is biology becoming a part of your brand? How are consumer perceptions towards biology changing?
We believe one of the most untapped but impactful frontiers for genomics and biotechnology is in materials development. Transparency, education and authenticity will continue to be critically important in the information age where consumers are empowered. We aspire to be one of the companies that lead by doing even when the bar is high, and hopefully setting an example worthy of others to follow because of the value created and delivered to consumers.
People are connecting the products that they use more closely than ever before to their personal health and the health of the planet; biology will be a more closely linked part of that conversation.
What are you most looking forward to at SynBioBeta 2018?
That’s easy … I am looking forward to learning and sharing. There are so many great companies making truly impressive progress in the space, some of which are hard to keep up with when we’re running in our own different direction also at break-neck speed. The opportunity to reconnect, meet new potential colleagues and contribute to this community is all pretty exciting.