Virdia embarks on new, improved commercialization trajectory

By Bryan Sims | March 14, 2012

Oxford, N.C.-based cellulosic sugar technology developer and producer Virdia, formerly HCL CleanTech, recently announced several milestones, including a complete branding overhaul, a new CEO, closing of $30 million in private financing and a multimillion dollar deal with the Mississippi Development Authority to develop and deploy its first commercial-scale cellulosic sugar manufacturing facility at a location yet to be determined.

Philippe Lavielle, newly appointed CEO, explained that the rebranding effort reflects “a new phase in the company,” he said. “We’re embarking on a commercialization phase where we thought we need a more commercially appealing name.”

Lavielle, an industry veteran of the industrial biotechnology sector, succeeded former CEO and cofounder Evan baniel as CEO, who now serves as vice president of business development. Prior to joining Virdia, Lavielle spent more than 20 years as a member of the executive management team at global enzyme developer Genencor, acquired by DuPont early last year, where his primary responsibilities included global business development in the fields of biofuels and biobased chemicals.

“I’m very proud of what we achieved with Genencor,” Lavielle said. “From having worked in industrial biotech all my time there I’ve been on the receiving end of sugars so I know the importance of sugar quality and the kind of things Virdia’s customers will want.”

Founded in 2007 as HCL CleanTech originally based in Israel, Virdia has developed a hydrochloric acid hydrolysis process—trademarked CASE—to convert a range of cellulosic biomass such as wood, energy crops and agricultural residues, into high-quality cellulosic sugars and lignin; both of which serve as important feedstocks for biorefining companies that are focused on the downstream processing of high-value biochemicals and advanced biofuels.

The company is capable of recovering between 95 and 97 percent of the sugar fractions out of biomass, according to Lavielle, which is a significant improvement compared to traditional enzymatic processes, he noted.

Since last summer, Virida has been optimizing and refining its sugar conversion process at its pilot-scale facility in Danville, Va., on the campus of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, according to Lavielle. The facility is capable of producing about a half a ton of cellulosic sugars per day.

To fund its piloting activities and engineering plans for its future commercial sugar processing facilities, Virdia raised more than $20 million from existing investors Khosla Ventures, Burrill & Co. and Tamar Ventures. In addition, the company closed a $10 million in a venture debt deal with Triple Point Capital.

For the development of its future commercial-scale sugar production facility, Virdia obtained an incentives package worth $75 million in low-interest loans, as well as up to $155 million in various tax incentives over a 10-year period from the state of Mississippi.

“We’ve reached a stage in our pilot activities that give us the confidence that we can go to the first commercial-scale plant in the next couple years,” Lavielle said.

Virdia has selected global engineering firm CH2M Hill, which will facilitate engineering and design for its commercial-scale sugar processing facility in Mississippi, according to Lavielle, adding that he envisions the company’s first commercial plant having an annual production rate of about 150,000 tons and eventually ramping up to 500,000 tons.

“We found Mississippi to be a very nice place to start our operations because, No. 1, of the availability of wood resources there,” Lavielle said. “The state is very rich in wood resources. It’s basically the heart of the wood basket. We’re now looking for partners to offtake those quantities of sugars and people interested in the conversion of the sugars who may want to potentially locate with us there.”

(Note: This story first appeared at Biorefining Magazine.)