Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A primer on snooping on start-ups.

The next month is going to be very busy for me; I will have a tough time keeping up the blog.  I thought it would be a good idea to get out a quick post to entertain and enlighten you before I disappear.

Snooping on start-up companies.

In much of my work, I am sleuthing energy or chemistry companies that are still in their earliest development, seed stage or even pre-seed.  I have posted tidbits on a few of these mysterious start-ups (Rennovia, Novogy, Reluceo) over the past few months.  These are companies that have recently shown up on the radar, but few people outside of their inner circle know what they are up to.

Early stage companies are new, small, and sometimes secretive.  If it is your job to develop information on them, you can have a rough time if you don't know where to start.  This post shows how I go about digging up leads about a new and mysterious start-up.  I will share a few pointers on locating business information found in public records or on the web.  This is a little tedious at times, but the pay-off is information that is not in press releases or other carefully managed corporate communications.   


I have used the example of Joule Biotechnologies.  I have no direct relationship with Joule and no axe to grind. I chose Joule because it is a good example of a start-up company that has stimulated a lot of speculation in the cleantech media, much of it at odds with the facts.

Start at the start.

A start-up is people and ideas.  To get to know a start-up, you need to identify the team and their "big idea", or intellectual property.  As you develop leads, make and test assumptions to find additional leads.  You are assembling a picture of a new company finding itself. 

Who is on the Team?

You need the names of the founders and everyone who is listed alongside them in any legal document related to the start-up.  This can be straightforward gumshoe work; retrieving documents and mapping the relationships recorded in them.

If you are lucky, the start-up is incorporated in a state that has reasonable guidelines on public access to records.  One of my favorites is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Here's a link to Joule Biotechnologies, as an example.  [Near the bottom you will see a selection list with "ALL FILINGS" at the top.  Select "ALL FILINGS", and click the 'view filings' button.]

The filings list officers and directors.  These can change over time, so record the dates, too.  Keep track of these names and follow up with searches to find previous relationships among these people.

Don't forget to check SEC filings.  To cast the widest net, use the EDGAR full text search, to get a solid data point like this:

Johan van Walsem, Vice President of Strategy and Commercial Development, returned to Metabolix in August 2009, following a 16 month period as Senior Vice President, R&D and Bioprocessing at Joule Biotechnologies, a clean technology start-up company located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

You could still be missing inventors and other important team members.  You will learn more about these people as you successfully discover more about the ideas and inventions that gave rise to the start-up.

So what's the big idea?

What is the idea or invention that is the spark of the company?  In a stealthy company, this kernel of information can be tricky to pin down.  Using indirect evidence, you do what you can to draw a box around what it might be.

In corporation filings, there is a place on the form to list the nature of the business.  Some companies dodge the question and respond that they are organized for "any legal business."  Some companies know what they are doing and are specific, as in the case of Joule Biotechnologies. 

In their Foreign Corporation Certificate of Registration, Joule lists their business as
Development of products and strategies relating to the research development,  design, manufacture and commercialization of bioreactors, industrial bioprocesses and engineered light capturing organisms.
That is still vague, but now we know have a general idea.  And we know that in September 2007, the team at Joule had crafted a statement that summed up Joule Biotechnologies at that time.

The most specific phrase in the filing statement is "engineered light capturing organisms."  Remember that unusual wording.

The US Patent Office has several relevant applications by Joule.  You can find these by searching for people on your list of Joule people - you did bring your list, right?. 

What is kind of fun is that you can also find the applications if you query Google with the phrase "engineered light capturing organisms." 

Google replies,
Information No results found for "engineered light capturing organisms"
But the first two alternatives suggested by Google are the patent applications from Joule, including one using the phrase "engineered light-capturing."  Pretty cool!

With patent filings, you get closer to the nitty-gritty of the inventive idea, what they claim to do that no one else can.  A complete examination of the material also can be a time-consuming and expensive effort; a case file for a patent application often includes hundreds of pages.  So the trick is to get a rapid and accurate sense of what problem is solved by the invention and how it is different from what has come before.

If you want to know more about Joule's vision for its business, you get a lucky break if you search Federal trademark applications.  Joule has submitted 18 applications.  Checking out those gets you closer to understanding an internal process that has occured as Joule has refined its identity.  Joule has applied for marks such as SOLARDIESEL, SOLARCHEMICAL, and DIRECT-TO-PRODUCT.  Each application has assertions about the good and services that Joule protects with each mark, so these anticipate markets and relationships that Joule wants to pursue.

Method to your madness.

You need a flexible general method for keeping track of all this data.  A concept map or directed graph representation of people and their affiliations and relationships can help keep things orderly.  A timeline is useful for organizing events by date. 

Keeping up with new developments.

If you have an ongoing interest in new developments at these start-ups, you will need to repeat the searches over time.  Periodically, you check again for new corporation filings, SEC filings, patent and trademark filings, and changes to websites.  Some of these updates can be automated, but interpreting the information cannot; you need an informed researcher to review the material.  Sometimes the information is in a document recorded as an image and has not been converted to text and automated searches are unhelpful. 

Other places to check - a miscellany.

If the technology has academic origins, there can be licensing agreements mentioned as agenda items in meeting minutes at the academic institution.  Start-ups can have relationships with researchers that are disclosed by an Office of Sponsored Research or a similar entity at the academic institution. 

The Federal Central Contractor Registration (CCR) database lists most entities doing business with the Federal government, importantly including applicants for Federal grants.  Many start-ups will appear in CCR at a very early stage of development.

A final note.

To keep it generic and instructive, I simplified and streamlined the discovery phase of the research process.  There are many other sources and methods that could be discussed, but  I hope that this helps you get closer to the information that you need.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Let's put on a Wikipedia article: what is poly(butylene succinate)? Part I: the basics.

My last post provoked good questions about the biodegradable polymer poly(butylene succinate), PBS.  What is it?  What is it good for?  How does it compare to other conventional and "green" plastics?

To be honest, normally I would suggest the first place to check would be Wikipedia, but there is no entry for poly(butylene succinate), so I guess I'll have to write one.

With that in mind, I'll make a few posts about PBS as I put together a decent wiki entry.  I'm also reaching out to experts for their input.

Part I: The Basics

First, the basics of the chemistry.

PBS typically is obtained through polycondensation of 1,4-butanediol and succinic acid. 
The attractiveness of the polymer derives in part from the chemistry and economics of these building blocks and the established nature of the polycondensation process, used in the manufature of PETE.


   succinic acid

Notice how similar these monomers are to one another.  In fact, it is suggested that in an integrated biorefinery, butanediol could be made from biobased succinic acid.   

To make PBS, equal amounts of succinic acid and 1,4-butanediol are required.  A million metric tons of 1,4-butanediol are produced annually, but only 50,000 metric tons of succinic acid.  Succinic acid accordingly is not cheap.  Changes in the demand for succinic acid and the economic of manufacture are expected to make succinic acid and PBS cheaper and more available.

Many groups around the world are working on the development of an economical process to manufacture succinic acid via fermentation, from renewable plant-derived materials and CO2

For recent coverage of the topic, read this post at, "Bio-succinic acid can beat petchems on price"

In Part II, I will finally get to the properties of PBS and how it is used in biodegradable applications.

Thank you to all who have helped so far!