4 minutes with… Mark Kirby, President & CEO, S2G Biochemicals

January 12, 2015 |

004ff6dTell us about your company and it’s role in the Advanced Bioeconomy.

S2G BioChem has a conversion technology based on catalytic hydrotreating that transforms cellulosic sugars to a mix of valuable biochemicals, primarily ethylene and propylene glycol, but also other valuable co-products with big markets & strong pull. We separate them into pure products that are cost and quality competitive with petrochemicals.

Tell us about your role and what you are focused on in the next 12 months.

I am focused on assembling a consortium of companies with the financial and project execution strength to start construction of a commercial production facility. S2G is fortunate to have a very close development partnership with a Fortune 500 company that sees strategic benefits in the products produced with S2G’s technology. It brings critical financial resources and a channel to market for much of the products from a commercial plant. S2G has the process expertise and scale-up experience honed over 20 years of work in catalytic hydrotreating of renewable materials. The project economics are solid. What we need are a feedstock partner with a secure supply of C5 sugars in the right quantity and quality, plus an engineering/project execution partner.

Financing an unproven, capital-intensive process is a daunting challenge that can only be done with good strategic partners. S2G’s challenge is to demonstrate that the rewards are there and the risks manageable.

What do you feel are the most important milestones the industry must achieve in the next 5 years?  

It is probably not very original to say so, but it is critical that the industry moves to profitable commercial production of advanced biofuels & biochemicals. There are a number of technologies, including S2G’s, that are ready. Now we need investors to start making money to encourage more investment!

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the Advanced Bioeconomy, what would you change? 

A few more wins. There have unfortunately been some notable failures that have tainted the waters. Starting new processes is challenging. As such, S2G has spent a lot of time reviewing commercial & pilot experience to ensure we understand yield, cost, scale-up and control of our process. Yes, investors need patience, but projects need to perform.

Of all the reasons that influenced you to join the Advanced Bioeconomy industry, what single reason stands out for you as still being compelling and important to you?  

At a basic level, I love technology and seeing how it can be applied to solve problems. I was and remain motivated to achieve environmental benefits and shift our world to a more sustainable future. The Advanced Bioeconomy offers this PLUS good economics: big markets, cost competitiveness, strong pull and technologies that are ready.

Where are you from? 

I come from a Canadian military family, so I spent my formative years bouncing between Canada’s two naval bases in Victoria, BC and Halifax, NS, plus stretches in Ottawa, ON at Defence HQ.

What was your undergraduate major in college, and where did you attend? Why did you choose that school and that pathway?

I earned my mechanical engineering degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, one of the best engineering schools in Canada. We have a lot of bright chemists and chemical engineers at S2G. It is fun to challenge their assumptions every once in a while from a mechanical perspective.

Who do you consider your mentors – could be personal, business, or just people you have read about and admire. What have you learned from them?

Among the people I consider mentors is Louis Dionne, an outsider who joined Praxair through acquisition and who unfortunately passed away at a young age due to ALS. I started my career at Praxair and found Louis to be very different from typical big company executives. He was brash and unafraid to make changes that shook up the established order and as such stepped on a lot of toes. He taught me how to initiate and manage change. He also taught me how critical it is to understand the politics of large organizations, which can sideswipe and kill start-ups more surely than technical challenges.

I have worked with any number of talented and inspirational leaders in the Cleantech community. For example, Denis Connor, who recruited me to join QuestAir Technologies, was excellent at building and motivating a leadership team.

What’s the biggest lesson you ever learned during a period of adversity?  

That is a tough one, since most lessons are learned through adversity. I would say the most important learning for a start-up is a sense of urgency. Small tech companies need to move quickly, reacting to changing market conditions, technology issues and partner needs. Sometimes that is as simple as working through the weekend to hit a milestone, but it may also mean doing what it takes to get that second or third program funded and under way just in case there is a delay in your primary program. Or it may mean quickly making tough decisions regarding staffing to conserve cash.

Usually, crisis are brought on by circumstances outside of your control: a change in the executive leadership at a partner, problems with a partner’s technology or a new technology such as shale gas changing the competitive landscape. Some can and should be anticipated. In other cases, it is a matter of reacting quickly rather than hiding your head in the sand.

What hobbies do you pursue, away from your work in the industry?  

I like outdoor activities in general: hiking, skiing, canoeing, etc — and fortunately, I live in an area where there are abundant opportunities. My main passion is mountain biking. I ride with a local crew of bikers and we get out for 5-6 hours a week on the local mountains year-round in sunshine or rain. It is fun and keeps me fit.

What are 3 books you’d want to have with you, if you were stranded on a desert island

The Lord of the Rings. No wait, that is 3 right there. Okay, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. (No really, I was a theater buff in school and it would pass the time on a desert island to act out the soliloquies.) I was also a Sci-Fi nerd so any 3 from Asimov, Clarke, Wyndham, Herbert, Vonnegut or a more recent author would be nice.

What books or articles are on your reading list right now, or you just completed and really enjoyed?  

Leaving aside the articles and reports I read for work, (including The Digest), I am part way through The Orenda, an award-winning Canadian historical novel about early interactions between Jesuits and First Nations – heavy going but fascinating. I really enjoyed the Cellist of Sarajevo and I admit I was engrossed by Gone Girl on a recent flight.

What’s your favorite city or place to visit, for a holiday?  

I love to visit the grand capitals of Europe: Paris, Copenhagen, London, etc. The history, culture, food and pleasant strolling in an urban area is such a nice change from the small, damp, young city in which I live. Mind you, it is hard to beat being surrounded by the magnificent BC wilderness…

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Category: Million Minds

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