EDITOR'S NOTE: From a security software maker to the developer of an implantable spinal cord neuromodulator, the Business Journal highlights seven spun-out ventures looking to ride the lab coattails of USC, UCLA and Caltech.


Product: Turning microalgae into crude oil

Founder: Wei Yu

Year Founded: 2012

Location: Los Angeles

What is it?

Lyxia makes crude oil from microalgae without feeding it sugar. This crude oil contains a very low amount of sulfur, so it is regarded as light sweet crude. Our mission is to commercialize a technology from UCLA to rapidly and directly convert carbon dioxide from microalgae into crude oil. It is expected that we can produce crude oil at a commercially viable cost compared with drilling oil in a large plant.

What was the idea that led to the creation of the company?

I was a bioengineering doctoral student and joined UCLA Micro System Laboratories in 2010. Under the guidance of professors Chih Ming Ho, James C. Liao and Laurent Pilon, I worked with Priscilla Zhao, a doctorate student from the same research group, to develop a possible means to accelerate microalgae growth and oil productivity.

What has been the benefit of spinning out of UCLA?

To license this innovation.

What were some of the challenges in developing the company?

Scale-up issues, including cultivation scalability, systems control, contamination and sustainability of production. Reliability and reproducibility in large-scale deployment were also challenges. Also, informing our customers that our crude shares the identical chemical content as petroleum and can replace it. There was the issue of the volatility and cyclicality of oil market as well as upstream market.

What has been the biggest change since spinning off?

We have started to work with commercial manufacturers to scale up our technology, and up to now, it has proved to be consistent and repeatable in several levels. We have raised sufficient funds to develop a prototype unit to demonstrate oil productivity and we decided to locate in Southern California, where we could make use of abundant resources. We are still deciding on the ideal place for a commercial scale plant.

What’s next?

We are shooting for large-scale deployment in two years.