When John Melo decided to leave BP 14 years ago to join synthetic biology company Amyris, it was set to be the next big thing in biofuels. But the idea only made sense with oil at $100 a barrel, and when those prices fell it didn’t pan out as he thought. “I had no grays, I had no scars, I was a bit naive,” recalls Melo, who was recruited to the CEO spot by venture capitalist John Doerr.

But Melo, who is 55 and an immigrant from the Azores, stuck it out and repositioned the Emeryville, California-based company. The move from biofuels to skincare, haircare, baby care and the like was not a straight path, but it offers a test case of how one company – and one CEO – pivoted a business that proved unworkable into one that could succeed.

“Fuels are the hardest thing to bioengineer for because of the cost,” Melo says. “By going after the hardest [thing] first we were able to push the technology and develop breakthroughs that no one has done.”

Today, Amyris’s big bets are in consumer products. It uses biosynthesis to create an alternative squalene, an oil made in the liver of sharks that’s used in moisturizers and other personal-care products. It launched its first consumer brand, Biossance, which offers a range of sustainable skincare products, in 2015. “The idea wasn’t to be a new brand,” Melo says. “We thought, ‘Let’s tell the consumer about it so they are more interested.’” Melo soon rolled out a follow-up brand called Pipette to target babies and moms.

“I think of the science platform as the golden goose.”

Results? The publicly traded company reported 2020 revenue of $173 million, up 13% from the previous year, though it has continued to lose money, with an adjusted net loss of $151 million. Amyris has said it expects 2021 revenue of around $400 million.

Investors have taken notice. Its stock is up 10-fold over the past year, at a recent $22, giving the company a market cap of $5.9 billion. Though the surge in stock price has pushed it above a number of analysts’ price targets, including recent ones from Cowen and Roth Capital Partners, the average analyst price target remains $26.60. Jeffries analyst Laurence Alexander (who has a target price of $23) notes in a recent report that he expects the market to continue to favor early-stage companies like Amyris given the high valuation multiples for biotech and fast-growing retail brands, among other factors.

Behind the expected growth is a flurry of new brands that are slated to launch in the third quarter, including Rose Inc. (clean cosmetics), Terasana (acne) and a partnership with Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness (hair care). Melo has also targeted acquisitions, agreeing to buy Costa Brazil, a luxury clean beauty brand, earlier this month for an undisclosed sum. He says another deal is in the works that will target Gen Z, though he declines to give additional details.

“We have been moving to the consumer very, very rapidly,” Melo says. In 2019, less than 20% of the business was in consumer brands; this year, by contrast, Melo says that more than half of revenue will come from them. “We expect our consumer business to keep doubling every year for the foreseeable future,” he says. “The consumer side will be somewhere around $130 million this year. That’s off last year being $52 million. It’s a fun place to be.”

Amyris, which was founded in 2003, isn’t the only synthetic biology company going after the personal-care market as skincare, haircare and makeup that’s sustainable and made with healthy ingredients has gained traction. Bolt Threads (see our 2018 profile) spun out a skincare company called Eighteen B based on its bio-based silk in 2019, while Geltor bio-engineers collagen and elastin.

Amyris is interesting because it’s building a portfolio of different brands that rely on its bioengineering, and because it can use the income it gets from molecules to invest in its own brands, which, as Melo notes, offer higher profit margins than selling ingredients. “I think of the science platform as the golden goose,” he says. “We are going to keep monetizing those molecules and using it to fund the brands.”

To date, the industrial biotech company has built and scaled 13 molecules and has another 18 in the pipeline. Each can generate $50 million to $100 million in revenue, Melo says, though the ultimate amount depends on market size and other factors.

With a $50 million deal with Dutch vitamin and animal feed conglomerate DSM plus two other transactions in the works, Amyris has moved to shore up its balance sheet. “The company can fund itself now into the future,” says a major investor. “That’s why it was a coiled spring, if you will.”

As the consumer business grows, what happens to Amyris’s remaining non-consumer operations? “It’s a great question,” Melo says, “and we’re figuring that out right now.”