Georgia renewable-fuels company moves to King of Prussia

Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton with a sample of wood product that is converted to sugars. He said the area's workforce attracted the firm.
Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton with a sample of wood product that is converted to sugars. He said the area's workforce attracted the firm. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff)
Posted: September 27, 2011

A renewable-fuels and materials company - backed by a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm best known for supporting Google, Amazon, and other now-dominant technology start-ups - has moved its headquarters and technology center to King of Prussia.

The relocation of Renmatix Inc., in a deal being announced Tuesday at an event with Gov. Corbett, company officials, and John Doerr of the venture-capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, brings only a dozen or so jobs to the region to start.

But employment at Renmatix could balloon if its elaborate process for making fuels and chemicals from plant materials that are not used for food becomes a commercial success.

Furthermore, the Philadelphia region could become a hub for the nascent renewables industry, as it was for the chemicals and pharmaceutical industries in the 20th century, officials said.

"We're in the rapid scaling-up mode here locally," Mike Hamilton, a former Rohm & Haas Co. executive who joined Renmatix as chief executive officer in August 2010, said in an interview Friday.

Hamilton would not say more about local employment goals at Renmatix, leaving the details to Corbett at Tuesday's event. Hamilton also declined to detail the incentive package Renmatix received from Pennsylvania for the move from Kennesaw, Ga., where it has a demonstration plant that makes samples for potential customers.

Renmatix's product is sugar derived from plants or parts of plants that are not used for food, as is the case with traditional U.S. ethanol production from kernels of corn. The reliance on corn to meet federal mandates for renewable fuels has helped drive food prices higher in recent years.

Renmatix - a contraction of "renewable materials" - says it can use waste wood and a wide range of other plant materials to make sugars that yeast can ferment into fuel or chemicals.

A more important incentive than money for relocating to the Philadelphia area was the workforce, said Hamilton, who lives near Wayne.

"We have a wealth of material-science talent and depth here in the region, which was attractive to us. We want to tap into that and attract a number of people to come and work with us," he said, citing the presence of DuPont Co., Dow Chemical, FMC Corp., and Arkema Inc.

Another attraction was Pennsylvania's hardwoods, which have the state in the running for Renmatix's first commercial plant, a $100 million facility whose location will likely be announced early next year, Hamilton said.

"We're in active discussions with some possible sites," he said. "It would be in a hardwood-producing part of the country. Somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic is the likely location for it."

Thomas G. Morr, president and chief executive of Select Greater Philadelphia, said his economic development group was excited about Renmatix's move. "We think it has the potential to put us at the forefront of biofuels, biochemicals, and products like renewable plastics," he said.

DuPont, in Wilmington, has been pursuing similar goals, developing a portfolio of materials and chemicals derived at least partially from corn. In 2008, DuPont formed a $140 million joint venture with a Danish company to make ethanol from corncobs and other nonfood materials.

The DuPont-Danisco process relies on enzymes for the difficult task of breaking down two structural materials in the cell walls of plants - cellulose and hemicellulose - into sugar. DuPont has since bought Danisco A/S for more than $6 billion.

Renmatix takes a different route, one that is cheaper and faster than enzymes, Hamilton said, to turning cellulose and hemicellulose into sugars.

Renmatix plans to sell those sugars to manufacturers that will further process them into chemicals and, eventually, plastics and other goods.

The company uses water in what is called a "supercritical" state, a combination of temperature and pressure that makes it act like solvent that releases sugars from the wood chips or whatever plant material is being processed.

"It sounds simple," said Hamilton, speaking as a chemist and 20-year veteran of the industry. "Reactions, once they are figured out, are simple, but it's the figuring them out which is difficult."


Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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