Hans Blaschek had the unusual experience of being the accidental entrepreneur.
Blaschek, a University of Illinois professor of food microbiology, recognized early on that his laboratory discoveries had commercial potential. But it wasn’t until John Banta and Jim Keating of IllinoisVENTURES, LLC – the seed and early stage technology investment firm created to help commercialize University of Illinois technologies – knocked on his office door that Blaschek co-founded a company.
TetraVitae Bioscience – which produces biobutanol using a proprietary fermentation process and enhanced microorganism platform – is the outcome of that pairing. Its product is a scale up of technology that Blaschek developed in his lab, a bacterial organism that produces high concentrations of biobutanol.
“Because butanol is so toxic to the organism even very tiny incremental increases are a big deal. That’s why we patented the microorganism at that time,” he says.
TetraVitae is focusing its commercialization efforts in the “chemical feedstock” market, manufacturing biobutanol as a renewable alternative to be used as an additive for coatings (such as paints), molded plastic, and packaging.
“We never had to convince, even in the early days when John (Banta) and I went to Palo Alto we never had to convince (investors) that producing biobutanol was a good idea. They already had that info,” he says. “What they were interested in is how do you have a better mousetrap than the other guys. What is it about your technology that is better?”
TetraVitae has outside funding from investors including IllinoisVENTURES, RPM Ventures, Country Financial and Harris & Harris Group. It exclusively licensed the technology from the University of Illinois, where it set up its labs at the EnterpriseWorks incubator. In 2011, the company reached a major milestone as it successfully completed the demonstration of its process to produce biobutanol in a corn dry-mill pilot plant, showing it can be economically viable on a large commercial scale. For the demonstration, TetraVitae retrofitted an integrated corn dry-mill pilot facility at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville's National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center.
Blaschek’s direct involvement at TetraVitae tailed off after an active first year, during which he actively pursued venture capital funding and helped make day-to-day decisions. As the company has matured, his role is limited to serving as a board member and being consulted on a scientific basis now and then. He also retains an ownership stake.
“We had a sense that this had a lot of potential on the commercial side,” Blaschek says. “But seeing it now coming to fruition is really the cool part because you can point to it and say, ‘This did evolve as an outgrowth of work carried out in my laboratory.”