25 people worth knowing in bioenergy

September 9, 2010 |

By now, Digest readers have all seen the promotions for our upcoming Advanced Biofuels Markets in San Francisco this November 9-10, which we are presenting in partnership with Greenpower Conferences. (More information on the conference, here)

Whenever I look at one of the many, many conference agendas that drift across the Digest’s editorial desk, I read the lifeless agenda descriptions and the stiff, corporate bios. I suspect you’ve read them too.

I find myself wondering – what are these people really like? How will I be changed, improved by time spent listening to their experience? How will this conference create opportunities for myself and my organization?

You see, we started doing Digest conferences because we felt that events could, and should, be done better.

What we look for is real dialogue about breakthroughs and logjams that face this industry and our individual organizations. We seek to pioneer relationships that create solutions. That’s why my work at our events consists primarily of setting up one-on-ones, and making introductions.

Those side conversations are, to us, what really good conference events are all about. You just never know when you’ll make the connection that will change everything for you.

In the brief sketches that form today’s lead story, I have endeavored to add some color to this November’s agenda.  But not every leader worth knowing is on the agenda. But this will give you 25 people worth knowing in bioenergy.

If your calendar and budget allows, I hope you’ll join us in San Francisco starting two months from today, meet these people, and add value to the conversation that we will have.

Jonathan Wolfson, CEO, Solazyme

In addition to leading the Digest’s #1-ranked Hottest Company in Bioenergy, Jonathan was the first person I can recall on a bioenergy platform who was talking about the opportunities in food oils and higher-value co-products long before they were fashionable. So we shouldn’t be all that surprised that the company has been subtly repositioned as a “renewable oils” company instead of an “algae company,” because Jonathan has been focused with his partenr Harrison Dillon on the end-user markets all along. In a 7-year journey since the company’s founding, they’ve looked at closed PBRs, open ponds, and now are commercializing heterotrophic algae, grown in the dark on a diet of cellulosic sugars. How did they partner with Bunge and Unilever. Sell algae-based fuel to the Navy while most are still trying to figure out how to grow it? Raise $150+ million for an new technology? Good questions to which he always provide cogent answers.

Bill Haywood, CEO, LS9

I first interviewed Bill not long after he become CEO of LS9, arriving as I recall from Tesoro. One of the first things you notice about Bill – besides the fact that he’s tall and rangy – is that he’s accessible. That’s rare. He’s a good communicator. That’s invaluable. Later I realized I never heard a promise from him that he didn’t keep. Also, he has assembled a crack team in terms of developing opportunities on a budget. The $3 million acquisition of an abandoned commercial-scale fermentation plant in Florida was a masterstroke of “capital light” thinking.

If I were a delegate, I suppose I would make a beeline for LS9 if I knew anything about Brazil, anything about cheap sugar, or had a market for renewable diesel or surfactants. Alternatively, I would seek out Bill if I wanted to know anything about capital-light commercialization, or about the fundamentals of commercializing a far-out technology.

Jim Imbler, CEO, ZeaChem

Jim’s been one of the most accessible CEOs in cellulosic ethanol, always available for a quote. More importantly, you can go to school on his knowledge of refining operations, and I have availed myself of the opportunity from time to time. I asked Jim to speak this time not only because he’s a good storyteller, but because ZeaChem was fuels and chemicals before everyone went for co-products, had a low-cost approach before “capital light” was all the rage, and has an excellent analysis of the chems markets and the process of achieving scale-up while staying solvent.

Alan Shaw, CEO, Codexis

If you ever played “Six Degrees of Separation” in Bioenergy, a lot of the intersecting lines pass through Alan. Worth knowing just for that. But also, Alan gutted out the first successful IPO in bioenergy in about three years when he took Codexis public this year. Besides, he’s a high-energy thinker and speaker, and in his partnership with Shell can give you the lowdown on how to make partnerships with giants work. A master of practical magic.

Atul Thrakar, CEO, Segetis

I first met Atul when we were fellow panelists at another Bay Area biotech meeting, the Burrill & Co Limited Partners annual event. Atul hadn’t at the time been long at the helm of Segetis, one of the few and most promising pure-plays in renewable chemicals. What a phenomenal presenter.

I invited Atul because I believe every bioenergy company can benefit from taking a look at its opportunities in renewable chemicals, and the Sergetis experience offers a meaningful roadmap for thinking through the value chain.

Eric McAfee, CEO, AE Biofuels

I suspect that I embarrassed the heck out of Eric last April at the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference when I said that he gave the best answers to Q&A from the floor of anyone I know in the business. But he does. Not to mention his vast experience in the early, go-go years of Pacific Ethanol, and now his time as CEO of the cellulosic ethanol venture AE Biofuels, which had a bolt-on, retrofit strategy long before it was fashionable. Keenly astute on the subject of public policy, he’ll lay the “ask” before you succinctly and persuasively. In addition, AE Biofuels is on its home turf in California, and I doubt if there’s a CEO who can give you a better sense of the opportunities and challenges of developing advanced biofuels projects in the US’ largest market.

John McCarthy, CEO, Qteros

If you happen to be in the market for a consolidated bioprocessing, ethanol-producing microbe, and your company is not named Mascoma, John’s your guy. Interesting microbe always, the company has been very much more on the move this year. But John’s worth knowing even if you’re making biodiesel in a blender – his background at Verenium running the BP deal gives him a unique, valuable perspective on commercialization, partnering with giants, life as a public company, and the glories of the Celunol-Diversa merger. Besides, he’s another of the Righteously Astutes on policy, and has been a go-to guy for “what needs to get done” on the the DC front, as well as in the lab and board room.

Kirk Haney, CEO, SG Biofuels

If you’ve heard the phrase Jatropha 2.0 or heard that all is not doom and gloom for yesterday’s favorite feedstock punching bag, that’s Kirk. The SG Biofuels team has just about been single-handedly saving jatropha from extinction as a high-value, near-term investment proposition. Also, I think he arguably has more personal experience developing renewables companies with feedstock based in Central America than anyone. It’s a highly disciplined effort, well worth a study, especially in the management of a partnership with the massive and imposing LIFE Technologies.

Jack Oswald, CEO, SynGest

In addition to running a remarkable project proposing to process renewable biomass into ammonia – thereby replacing one of the most costly fossil-based inputs from the bioenergy value chain – Jack has contributed broad industry visions several times this year to the Digest. His thoughts on the importance of aiming for “energy abundance” as opposed to simply meeting the projected needs of the future, are a conference unto themselves, and his “cornucopia” model for meeting energy and feedstock needs of the future is perhaps the most significant vision laid down in the past 3 years by someone who is in the actual business of developing energy projects.

Hunt Ramsbottom, CEO Rentech

The Rentech story is a fascinating one – a company that started developing renewable energy projects back in the 80s – that’s the REN in Rentech – and has returned to its roots with some pioneering moves in aviation biofuels. United Airlines recently tested their synthetic aviation biofuels, and they’ve signed MOUs with more than a dozen airlines and with LAX to supply renewable fuels. Aside from that, they’ve gone through the experience of developing projects as a public company – not for the faint-hearted. A potentially invaluable partner to know and be conversant with, and we are looking forward to CEO Hunt Ramsbottom joining us in SF for an update on their progress.

Richard Hamilton, CEO, Ceres

I interviewed Rich for the first time last spring, and promptly issued an invite to speak in San Francisco. I was fascinated, as I think you will be, by the knowledge that he and Ceres have developed on the long-term opportunities in bioenergy feedstocks. If affordable feedstocks are the key to successful projects – which anyone in the biodiesel or corn ethanol industry would agree to – then Ceres vision on the yields and geographies of feedstocks like miscanthus, switchgrass and energy cane should be a “must have” at any industry event.

Wayne Simmons, CEO, Sundrop Fuels

The Digest first covered Sundrop earlier this year. The concept of a company that uses solar power to drive the biomass conversion process (instead of using biomass) is unique in the industry, and one of the really interesting “hybrid” technologies. It makes you wonder why more projects don’t utilize wind or solar energy to drive their process, and use the resulting savings in biomass to power higher yields for their processing systems. The geographies and economics of such an approach are well worth understanding.

Bill Sims, CEO, Joule Unlimited

Although I have kidded Bill Sims for leading “Joule Undisclosed” – he’s been excellent in meeting regularly with the Digest to take us through the evolution of a company that startled last year when it emerged from stealth mode with its process for generating fuels from sunlight and CO2, competitive with $30 oil. Their progress since then has been rapid. Their near-term opportunities in commercial-scale development make them a company well worth knowing as a competitor for funding, partner in development and as a source for green jobs and economic development for a lot of geographies that otherwise aren’t in the biofuels mainstream.

John Scott, CEO, PetroAlgae

The biggest IPO out there this year in biofuels is the $200 million raise for PetroAlgae. There will some limitations on the extent that Dr. Scott can give us insight into their progress – as was the case when Alan Shaw had to bow out of our April event when Codexis was in the midst of their IPO. But many people in the industry have been perplexed with PetroAlgae’s IPO timing – never a better opportunity to understand why companies like Goldman Sachs, Citi and UBS have signed on to lead the underwriting.

Rick Wilson, CEO, Cobalt Technologies

Although Rick generally presents on the technology and commercial timelines for Cobalt, in a side conversation he’s worth flagging down just to learn what he knows about hedging out upstream feedstock risk in bioenergy development. This biobutanol early-stage company has been in our “50 Hottest Companies” for two years running, and yet I have always considered them a vastly underrated company – overall, biobutanol as a whole has been more overlooked than understood. In this case, we have an opportunity to look at the renewable chemicals side of the equation, with Cobalt focused on a smaller-scale early commercialization focused on high value chems.

Tim Potter, CEO, Butamax

If Cobalt can show us the renewable chemicals opportunities in biobutanol, Tim Potter can take us through the fuel side, with this Dupont-BP joint venture that has set its sights on the biobutanol fuels based on a strategy of converting existing first-generation ethanol plants over to biobutanol. The economic opportunities are well worth considering, as we have detailed in the Digest on a number of occasions. Also, this is probably as close a look as you’ll get to the kind of model that Gevo is pursuing – not entirely the same, but the basics of converting first gen ethanol to biobutanol production is there – during Gevo’s quiet period before its IPO.

John Hamer, Managing Director, Burrill and Company

In the three years that the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference (and its predecessor) have been conducted on the East Coast, we’ve always had John on the program. In addition to being one of the most astute VC in the field, he’s one of the ex-Purdue and ex-Dupont cohort that I sometimes think run this industry. Before becoming a VC at Burrill, he was a long-time Purdue professor in microbiology, a company founder, and an ex-CEO. That’s as rounded an experience as one comes by.

Tom Baruch, Founder, CMEA Capital

In addition to being one of the most experienced VC in the country – and that’s saying something – Tom has been an integral part – as  Codexis chairman – of the first successful bioenergy IPO in several years. How they got it done, and Yom’s views on the state of play in advanced bioenergy as it moves from demo stage towards the large capital calls that are required in the commercialization stage…well, for sure I will be sitting in the audience furiously taking notes.

Bill Hagy, Director of Alternative Energy Policy, USDA

Bill joined us in April at the Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference in DC, but this is the first time we’ve managed to secure him for the program itself. As director of the USDA’s bioenergy policy team, I can think of a boatload of reasons why every person in the industry should take notes on his views of the path forward. But also, we have the USDA bioenergy roadmap just out this summer, and this is one of the first opportunities the industry will have to interact at the high-level with USDA on the practical aspects of converting that vision into practical rural development.

Tim Cesarak, MD, Organic Growth Group, Waste Management and Vincent Chornet, CEO Enerkem

We are fortunate indeed to have both VIncent Chornet of Enerkem and Tim Cesarak, who serves on the Enerkem board and is MD of the strategic investment arm of Waste Management. Enerkem, as you may recall, has broken ground on its first commercial-scale advanced biofuels plant, putting it in the lead in terms of developing advanced biofuels from MSW. Meanwhile, WM has invested in Enerkem, Terrabon, S4 and others – their vision on turning waste streams into revenue streams is worth hearing, and possibly worth a partnersing discussion.

Dan Adler, President, California Clean Energy Fund

Dan and I were introduced by Digest staffer Michael Theroux. I had asked Michael to tell me the names of the people in California I should be at this fall’s event that I didn’t have on the preliminary list. Dan led the list. If you’ve not run across CalCEF in your travels, it is a $30 million nonprofit venture capital fund formed in 2004 to accelerate the development of promising early-stage clean energy technologies. To date, CalCEF has operated as a fund-of-funds in partnership with private investors, leveraging its funds in a broad pool of investable capital. Dan’s a director of ACORE, and serves on the Clean Tech Open board, the leading business plan competition in the industry.

Wes Bolsen, CMO, Coskata

In the world of bioenergy, one of the most energetic and outspoken presenters ‘on the circuit’ is Coskata’s Wes Bolsen, and with the company in the midst of its capital raise for its commercial-scale project “somewhere in the Southeastern United States”, we may well have an even more fascinating presentation than usual by November. One of the handful of people in the business residing outside of DC who has an authentically informed view on the progress or lack thereof in policy circles.

Mike McAdams, President, Advanced Biofuels Association

If there’s one guy who forms the glue holding advanced biofuels together in DC, its Mike. Most of us who have heard his presentations know that he gives you the fastest, most accurate rundown on the state of play on DC issues affecting advanced bioenergy. Mike also gives it to you straight – the bad with the good. For Christmas, I plan to ask Santa to make every bioenergy company join his Advanced Biofuels Association, which I think is one of the biggest no-brainer moves available to any company that wants to be serious about becoming a player.

Ron Stinebaugh, CFO, Syntroleum

As you may recall, about 80 percent of the actual, in place advanced biofuels capacity in the country consists of the 75 Mgy Dynamic Fuels plant in Geismar, Louisiana, a JV of Tyson and Syntroleum. How did they get it done, make it happen during a period of slowdown across the spectrum of bioenergy? Ron can take you through the process of how they made it happen. Among the editorial meetings I have conducted over the years at my local Starbucks in Key Biscayne, my session with Ron a few months back was my favorite, and I invited him on the spot to come and share his views in November. Just in terms of running a successful partnership with Tyson, and developing that at high speed into actual gallons on the ground, is a must-hear.

Doug Berven, Director, Corporate Affairs

Doug is our only non C-level speaker this year, I believe. We made the exception for reasons that will become entirely clear after you’ve heard one of his presentations. I have had the pleasure of being a “panel buddy” with Doug at a couple of events over the years. I think most people are familiar with POET as the leader in first-generation ethanol, and the force behind Growth Energy. POET’s vision for building out 3.5 billion gallons in capacity for the company, which has a distinctive advanced biofuels component, is less well known, and deserves a wider hearing. Besides, POET’s been getting it done in terms of bringing its Project LIBERTY up in Emmetsburg, Iowa to fruition, and we are expecting that project to break ground in the next 18 months with a commercial start no later than 2013. With 23 plants, POET has the ability to put about 500 Mgy of advanced biofuels capacity into its own fleet, using bolt-ons. That’s worth learning about.

Complete conference info, here.

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