Editor’s Note: On October 15, Tyton is launching a fundraising campaign on AgFunder. The CEO Peter Majeranowski is hosting an investor webinar at 11am PT, 2pm ET on Oct. 15. Sign up for the webinar or view details on the investment opportunity.
Tobacco remains the largest non-food crop on Earth, but due to its addictive and carcinogenic properties when smoked or chewed, the plant’s reputation has all but gone up in flames in recent decades. Now, a biotech research company could provide a clean start for the crop as a renewable fuel.
In Danville, Virginia — the beating heart of tobacco country — Tyton BioEnergy Systems has developed both a patented “energy” leaf tobacco plant and a patented chemical extraction process to produce a plethora of biofuels and green chemicals. Tyton expects to compete with petroleum at $40 per barrel and to outperform other leading biomass feedstocks as a low-cost, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.
Turning a new leaf
Co-founded by Professor Hilary Koprowski, a renowned virologist and inventor of the first live polio vaccine, Tyton researchers have combined selective breeding techniques with genetic engineering to boost tobacco’s natural sugar content by 300 percent, and oil content by 200 percent. They’ve completed four years of growing trials with top tobacco universities and commercial growers.
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Tobacco is a suitable feedstock because of its heartiness and cost stability in contrast to the food crops traditionally used to produce biofuels. “Tobacco is a high biomass plant, and can thrive in conditions where other crops struggle,” says Peter Majeranowski, Tyton CEO and cofounder. “The ethanol market is seeking a replacement non-food source, and working with tobacco reduces the price volatility and stigma attached to food-based sugars.”
The plant is also inexpensive to grow. Tyton cultivates what most in the tobacco industry would consider unfavorable varieties — those with low nicotine levels and lackluster tastes — in maximum capacity. Unlike smoking tobacco, which Majeranowski says must be “babied” as it’s planted, harvested, and cured, Tyton’s tobacco doesn’t require costly, time-consuming maintenance. Rather, it is mechanically collected once mature and processed fresh.
Grown commercially in over 120 countries worldwide, tobacco has especially deep roots in U.S. history. During the Colonial period, it became the economic lifeblood of the south and was even deemed legal currency for a time. For many Virginian growers, tobacco farming remains a well-respected tradition.
“It’s a thing of pride,” said Luke Henning, Tyton vice president. “I’ve seen farmers grow 50 acres of tobacco and 2,000 acres of corn and identify as a tobacco farmer first.”
Pike Research forecasts massive market growth in the biofuel ($185 billion by 2021) and green chemical ($98.5 billion by 2020) industries in the coming years. As more modern consumers kick the cigarette habit and embrace healthier lifestyles, alternative applications for tobacco could reaffirm the leafy plant’s cash crop status in the future.
Tyton debuts patented chemical extractor
This September, Tyton rolled out a pilot-scale biomass extractor capable of processing 12 tons of biomass per day.
Described in layman’s terms as a pressure cooker on steroids, the extractor derives all the goodies from tobacco biomass — such as sugars, oils, proteins, and biochar (a carbon byproduct) — for use in fuels, chemicals, animal feed, and soil amendments.
“The extractor provides a cost-effective way to draw all the high-value contents out of tobacco,” Majeranowski said. “There’s absolutely no waste — 100 percent of the plant is used.”
To squeeze out every last drop, leaves and stalks are pressed, and the sugary, protein-rich juice is collected and separated. The remaining biomass, known as “cake,” is then entered into the extractor for deeper processing. Water is the only other ingredient required.
The company has a five-year purchase agreement from a 55 million gallon ethanol biorefinery in North Carolina — worth up to $350 million in potential revenue — for its tobacco sugar.
To meet this demand, the pilot-scale extractor is just the start; Tyton plans to build a 100-ton per day facility by 2017.
The company believes its technology could spur economic growth in the tobacco belt and provide new revenue streams for farmers. In fact, farmers can expect to boost their profits 15-30 percent by growing this energy crop, according to Tyton. And the thermal conversion technology isn’t limited to tobacco; the team is currently evaluating the process with other crops and materials, and has already synthesized corn and tobacco sugar mixtures.
A broader scope
Tyton’s relationship with Southeastern farming communities will underpin its future success, but potential international opportunities are abundant. The team is looking to China, the world’s biggest tobacco producer, as a possible hot market. Henning is also convinced that renewable fuels could reduce energy deficits in his native Africa.
International expansion may happen sooner rather than later, as Tyton entered a research agreement with Public University of Navarre in Spain this month and forged a developmental partnership with French biotech company Deinove in September. The latter is using bacteria-based fermentation to make chemicals from feedstocks, and plans to generate and commercialize green compounds from tobacco sourced by Tyton.
Back in the U.S., Tyton recently teamed with Smithfield Foods’ Hog Production Division, a leading pork producer for brands like Nathan’s Famous and Healthy Ones. The partnership explores sustainable options for fertilizer and animal feed, such as the effects of hog manure on tobacco growth and the benefits of feeding hogs with tobacco-based protein products.
Powering the future
Tyton’s management team are no strangers to building large companies. The team has over $1 billion in exits from companies like BEA Systems and Nano Carrier. They’re now prepared to combat fossil fuel dependency on a global scale.
“Our vision is to be the non-food feedstock of choice for green chemicals. The technology is where it needs to be and the industry recognizes the economical potential of our products,” said Henning, who alluded to an emerging partnership with a major tobacco company interested in investigating non-smoking uses for the crop. “We’re building a company that does something meaningful for the world.”
In order to scale its production and research, and grow its team, Tyton is raising a new round of funding on AgFunder. Visit Tyton’s campaign profile here.