Wisconsin startup looks to address the palm oil problem


In Wisconsin, a startup is pursuing an alternative route to palm oil, a renewable product used in many applications but associated with catastrophic environmental impacts and unethical labor practices. 

Founded in 2007 by Tom Jeffries and Tom Kelleher, Xylome is feeding corn sugar to genetically engineered yeasts, which in turn produce microbial oils similar to palm oil that Xylome calls “Yoil”. 

About 70 million metric tons of palm oil are used annually in products like toothpaste, biodiesel, and detergents, but palm oil cultivation is a major driver of deforestation in tropical regions and threatens already endangered species like orangutans and elephants. By 2050, market demand for palm oil is expected to double. Just a fifth of global palm oil supply is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which seeks to ensure biodiverse land isn’t threatened by plantation expansion. 

Yoil costs remain a significant hurdle to replacing palm oil, however. “I don’t think we’re going to disrupt what they’re producing today at all,” Kelleher adds. “We really represent an alternative for the growth of the industry.”