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Metabolix listens to UMass Lowell

By From Mass High Tech

by Catherine Williams

Metabolix Inc., a Cambridge-based biotechnology company competing for the front spot in the plastics production revolution, has scooped up a technology licensing agreement with the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Earlier this month, UMass Lowell reported it had granted Metabolix exclusive rights to a U.S. patented technology to produce biodegradable plastics. The technology is based on the research of Stephen McCarthy, a plastics engineering professor and the director of the Biodegradable Polymer Research Center at UMass Lowell.

Metabolix is developing biodegradable plastics made from plants, with the stated intent of reducing the reliance on petroleum-based plastics that are nonbiodegradable.

But the company's success relies on the on-time and on-budget completion of a joint venture project launched in 2006 to construct a manufacturing plant in Iowa with Archer Daniels Midland Co., according to the company's annual report. The plant, for the production of natural plastics made by microbial fermentation of corn sugar, cane sugar or vegetable oils, is scheduled to open in 2008.

Metabolix reports it has had net operating losses since being founded in 1992, including a reported net loss of $16 million in 2006 on revenue of $4.6 million. The company's annual report show that as of Dec. 31, 2006 its accumulated operating loss was valued at $66 million. To add to the challenges, Metabolix faces some aggressive competition from companies including Japan-based companies Toyota and Mitsui Chemicals, which have established customer bases for nonpetroleum based products.

Metabolix officials did not return calls for additional details.

Metabolix filed for an initial public offering in November 2006. The company also hired Jay Kouba as its new president and CEO last month to replace James Barber, who resigned as president, CEO and a member of the company's board of directors in May.