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Has Craig Venter's ExxonMobil Deal Hit a Rough Patch?

As a hometown hero, genome mapping pioneer, world sailor, and venture capital rainmaker extraordinaire, J. Craig Venter, who lives in a posh La Jolla mansion with his third wife and longtime publicist Heather Kowalski, is awash in good ink.

But negative talk about the bearded sage of local bio-tech occasionally emerges elsewhere.

On Friday, Foreign Policy blogger Steve LeVine reported that the heralded $600 million partnership between Venter's Torrey Pines-based Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil to come up with biofuels from genetically-engineered algae may be stalled.

According to the account, Venter and his team have "failed to find naturally occurring algae strains that can be converted into a commercial-scale biofuel."

Ever the optimist with a way with high-tech buzzwords, Venter told LeVine he's working on an alternative:

"I believe that a fully synthetic cell approach will be the best way to get to a truly disruptive change."

LeVine went on to report that ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers had a different take:

"'The ExxonMobil-SGI algae project is ongoing and has reached no such conclusions as characterized in your note,' Jeffers told me in an email.

"(I had asked whether it is true that the alliance had failed to find a suitable strain of natural algae, and that Venter was seeking to shift to a new stage of research.)."

Concludes LeVine:

"What we may be witnessing is simple friction between the well-known conservative ways of Exxon and the free-wheeling, iconoclastic Venter.

"In this case, Venter from the outset may have wanted to move directly to the test-tube and create his own algae, while Exxon -- holding the purse-strings -- advocated a less-expensive, step-by-step approach starting with existing strains.

"There is no sign of anything approaching a rupture.

"But if the alliance does eventually fail, it would be a serious blow for Venter, who has said that to succeed he needs access to the deep pockets of a Big Oil company, and to a significant but lesser degree for ExxonMobil, which has widely promoted the partnership as evidence that it is a forward-looking company."

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As a hometown hero, genome mapping pioneer, world sailor, and venture capital rainmaker extraordinaire, J. Craig Venter, who lives in a posh La Jolla mansion with his third wife and longtime publicist Heather Kowalski, is awash in good ink.

But negative talk about the bearded sage of local bio-tech occasionally emerges elsewhere.

On Friday, Foreign Policy blogger Steve LeVine reported that the heralded $600 million partnership between Venter's Torrey Pines-based Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil to come up with biofuels from genetically-engineered algae may be stalled.

According to the account, Venter and his team have "failed to find naturally occurring algae strains that can be converted into a commercial-scale biofuel."

Ever the optimist with a way with high-tech buzzwords, Venter told LeVine he's working on an alternative:

"I believe that a fully synthetic cell approach will be the best way to get to a truly disruptive change."

LeVine went on to report that ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers had a different take:

"'The ExxonMobil-SGI algae project is ongoing and has reached no such conclusions as characterized in your note,' Jeffers told me in an email.

"(I had asked whether it is true that the alliance had failed to find a suitable strain of natural algae, and that Venter was seeking to shift to a new stage of research.)."

Concludes LeVine:

"What we may be witnessing is simple friction between the well-known conservative ways of Exxon and the free-wheeling, iconoclastic Venter.

"In this case, Venter from the outset may have wanted to move directly to the test-tube and create his own algae, while Exxon -- holding the purse-strings -- advocated a less-expensive, step-by-step approach starting with existing strains.

"There is no sign of anything approaching a rupture.

"But if the alliance does eventually fail, it would be a serious blow for Venter, who has said that to succeed he needs access to the deep pockets of a Big Oil company, and to a significant but lesser degree for ExxonMobil, which has widely promoted the partnership as evidence that it is a forward-looking company."

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