Changing of the Guard

February 20, 2019 |

With the news that Matt Carr is leaving his post as the Executive Director of the Algae Biomass Organization, it’s beginning to feel like a real changing of the guard is taking place on the watchtowers that surround and advanced the bioeconomy.

It was only a few months ago that long-time RFA CEO Bob Dinneen stepped into an emeritus role as a senior advisor and Geoff Cooper was appointed RFA’s new CEO. And some time next month Brent Erickson will give up his role as the head of BIO’s Industrial and Environmental Section. Between these three, there’s more than 60 years of experience in the advanced bioeconomy’s trade associations.

We also note that the long-time head of REG Life Sciences, going back to LS9 days, Steve del Cardayre, went on a sabbatical in recent months; and we’ve seen some of our longest-serving CTOs like Virent’s Randy Cortright move over to new organizations and new roles.

The bioeconomy is not organized like the old petroleum-based economy — with giant companies, stifled for innovation, grinding down the costs and grinding down the competitors, in a grasping oligopoly. Instead, there are hundreds of companies and technologies vying for their day in the sun, not through predatory influence and the competitive advantage expressed in economies of scale created through government fiat over the years, but through technological innovation and improvement.

Case in point, the Navy paid $25 a gallon for renewable fuels  early in this decade and by 2016 the Navy made a huge 70 million gallons by of a biofuel blend at $2.07 per gallon. “That’s the story, that’s the success,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at the time.

But the sector’s love of innovation has not made a generation of science projects — in the past two years, more than 1 billion gallons of advanced biofuels, chemicals and materials projects (or expansions) have been built or are under construction around the world, and hundreds of first-generation ethanol and biodiesel plants are operating at scale today. Ethanol is priced at less than $1.50 a gallon today, a third of what it cost a decade ago.

Openness has been at the heart of it, and these pioneer technologists and association leaders have been driving that. The bioeconomy is not shrouded in secrecy, run by cabals and created on the back of predatory railroad dealings as the petroleum refining industry was. There is a great difference between the openness of the supports that renewables receive and the nearly-invisible yet massive supports that petroleum receives. This industry has been built not only to deliver a different product, but to do business differently, and everyone will benefit by the world these gentlemen and their colleagues have built.

They are not risk-takers, but risk-minimizers, and because they are so focused on minimizing the risks, they are generally very good at taking the outsized risks associated with transformation of the world’s energy supply chain.

An app is a wonderful thing, but it is built on packet-switching, on the internet protocol, on the innovations in co-axial and digital cable, and ultimately on the railroad deals of the 19th century that, at no cost to industry, built the right-of-ways, the very distribution system for the bits and bytes you are reading now, to reach you at a nominal cost of energy and time. The digital industry’s advances have been gained in many ways because they have leveraged the supports that were given to other industries in days gone by.

Yet, the bioeconomy has been forced to struggle to obtain the same supports — in building out an affordable, reliable, available and sustainable supply-chain — that petroleum received, that the internet received, that the railroads, the airlines and the auto manufacturers received. These leaders have labored hard to assure that supply-chain and to assure, in del Cardayre’s case, that the technology would be affordable to deliver.

This then, is the type of economy and body politic they have developed — open, clean, renewable, protective of our environment, affordable, using today’s infrastructure, making something that auto manufacturers can work with in their existing designs and that astonishes local mechanics when they see how clean the engines are, and how long they last. And delights the formulators and retailers of sustainable materials when they see not only the renewable attribute, but also the performance.

They have supported energy independence with every effort they have made — not just energy independence for Americans, but energy freedom for all. And they have supported the men and woman in uniform by giving them affordable, renewable fuels that do not have to be purchased from forces who oppose our national aspirations, and which assure us of a supply of affordable fuels no matter what happens in the international oil markets. Our soldiers and sailors know that funds to cover spikes in energy prices, which almost invariably come at times of international crisis, are routinely taken out of funds earmarked for training and readiness.

These four men — and countless men and women who have labored beside them — have made friends for the bioeconomy, and helped assure that there is a business for the bioeconomy, by building coalitions and alliances for the industry. The story of the bioeconomy is one of partnerships for progress — policymakers, strategic customers and investors, bankers, researchers, consumers, auto manufacturers, environmentalists, farmers, urban interests, and more. All of these have to come together to create legislation like the Farm Bill and to develop and deploy technology. Policy requires advocacy and partnership requires a medium and that is the work that associations do.

When I was a boy growing up in faraway Sydney, Australia, the great hall at my school which was used for assemblies and other important occasions had an inscription in classical Greek upon the back wall, as a a memorial to schoolboys who had served in the Great War. When it was my turn to study that language and learn to translate that phrase, I discovered it was from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, and said:

Famous men have the whole earth as their memorial. It is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark them out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people’s hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them. Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.

I have often thought back to that idea that famous men have the whole earth as their memorial, those leaders still among the living and those who have passed on. There’s something powerful and true in that — the world is what we have made it, and our leaders have guided and exhorted us to make it so, for good or ill. There’s nothing but good in the advanced bioeconomy, and there’s nothing but good in the world that will come to be because of this set of technologies, when they are sustainably deployed at scale. We have much to thank from this quartet.

We’ll miss some favorites like Bob Dinneen’s annual In/Out list, Matt Carr’s insidious ability to find new opportunities for algae in industry and policy supports seemingly underneath a blueberry muffin or a leaf blowing down Pennsylvania Avenue, and Brent Erickson’s outward cool under fire, his far-sighted leadership and his amazing abilities (parenthetically) as a portrait painter.

At the Algae Biomass Organization

Matt Carr transformed ABO into an organization representing the full universe of opportunities made possible by advanced algae cultivation, with an impressive range of new members coming on board to participate in the group’s outsized impacts:

  • ABO’s membership now includes five of the largest domestic algae producers.
  • New corporate members that have joined over the past year represent some of the most significant points in the algae value chain. These include providers of food and nutrition products that can be made with algae, advanced engineering firms, providers of algae-based water treatment systems, laboratory systems and automation, biofuels and more.

Matt leveraged the growth in membership diversity into supporting some remarkable policy wins, including:

  • An active and strong bipartisan Congressional Algae Caucus – this group of lawmakers has become an active advocate for annual appropriations that support important research and projects across the algae value chain to the benefit of ABO members and the industry. These funds are expected to exceed $40 million in 2019.
  • An engaged Interagency Algae Working Group – a group coordinating federal algae R&D efforts that includes the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, Heath and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • A transformation of carbon capture policy – An update to the 45Q tax credit will allow algae and other biological forms of carbon capture utilization to take advantage of this valuable incentive for the first time.
  • A Farm Bill that supports algae farming provisions in the latest Farm Bill that will assist the algae industry include a new Algae Agriculture Research Program at USDA, and language directing the Department to develop crop insurance tools for algae production – with the potential to deliver millions of dollars of value annually to the algae industry.
  • The launch of the Future of Algae for Food and Feed Initiative – With the launch of the Future of Algae for Food and Feed (FAFF) initiative, a huge step was taken toward addressing barriers to widespread adoption of algae food and feed ingredients. The FAFF also laid the groundwork for new partners – and new funding streams – for this important work.
  • A successful Algae Biomass Summit, with a strong program shaping up for 2019 in Orlando – The Algae Biomass Summit has become the most important algae industry event. The 2018 Summit featured its strongest business program to date, including a new Products & Markets Track, Algae Product Showcase, and algae-focused menu, and attracted nearly 200 first-time attendees. The 2019 Summit is shaping up to be even better.

Over at BIO

Brent Erickson arrived at BIO on March 17, 2000, following highly-regarded staff positions in the U.S. Senate and trade association world.  Brent came here to head up the then newly-created Industrial and Environmental Section (IES).

As the first and only Industrial and Environmental Section  leader, he helped establish the fledging industrial biotech sector as a key part of the biotech business community.  He started the BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology from scratch over 15 years ago, and today it is the premier event for the industrial biosciences sector.  He helped found the Journal of Industrial Biotechnology in 2005, and has served since then as its consulting editor.  He has been a tireless advocate for our industrial biotech sector, with a series of impressive advocacy wins under his belt — not the least of which were the passage of the Renewable Fuel Standards in 2005 and 2007.

Prior to joining BIO, Erickson held several highly-regarded staff positions in the U.S. Senate and at the American Petroleum Institute (API) in Washington, D.C. Following his departure from BIO in the spring, Erickson expects to start BioInsights Consulting LLC, a boutique consulting company to serve companies innovating in biotechnology.

Over at RFA

Dinneen was with RFA for more than 30 years, including serving as the organization’s president and CEO since 2001. During his tenure, Dinneen led the industry and achieved a number of landmark legislative and regulatory victories for ethanol, including passage of the original Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in 2005 and significant expansion and extension of the RFS program in 2007. Dinneen also played a crucial role in the creation of the reformulated gasoline and oxygenated fuels requirements; securing the RVP waiver for E10; working with states to adopt bans on MTBE; and multiple extensions of the ethanol blender’s tax credit and secondary tariff on imported ethanol, among other important victories.

“For more than three decades, I have had the privilege of working for an industry whose mission inspires me, a Board of Directors that supports me, and an organization that exemplifies the highest degree of professionalism, creativity, and competence,” Dinneen stated. “I have borne witness to phenomenal growth, seen rural economies transformed and gotten to know and work side-by-side with the people who made this industry the success it is today. Every day I am thankful for our accomplishments and still enthusiastic to tackle the challenges ahead. Without a doubt, I have been truly blessed.”

“But 30 years is a long time and I believe now is the right time for new leadership, new ideas, and new energy at the helm of the Renewable Fuels Association. I am going to keep working at RFA in a different capacity but with the same goal: to assure RFA and the industry I care about so deeply continue to grow and realize their full potential,” Dinneen continued. “At the very least, I have great confidence that under Geoff’s leadership, the RFA will develop into an even more effective and authoritative voice for the U.S. ethanol industry, and that may be my greatest blessing.”

RFA Chairman Mick Henderson said, “Bob has spent most of his professional life dedicated to this industry, and for that we will always be grateful. He has worked tirelessly on our behalf for 30 years and in that time, there was never any doubt that we could count on Bob to fight for us every day. The industry simply would not be what it is today without Bob’s direction and leadership over the past three decades.”

Over at REG Life Sciences

Prior to joining REG Life Sciences (then LS9), Dr. del Cardayre spent 9 years at Codexis and Maxygen, where he was directly involved in the development, application, and commercialization of technologies for the engineering of biocatalytic processes for the pharmaceutical and chemical industry.

Steve published extensively on the application of evolutionary engineering of biological systems, focusing primarily on the engineering of whole cell biocatalysts.

But it was the work on REG Life Sciences that he’ll be known for, for some time to come.

First, there was the astonishing possibilities that flowed from proving out the concept that you could have a one-step process and produce a fuel or a chemical, instead of a fat, from sugar. It seemed like a crazy idea when Jay Keasling, Chris Somerville and George Church sketched out the idea on a napkin.

You could do it with chemical intermediates and also with an expensive hydrogenation step in there — but, one-step? It seemed astronomically difficult and ambitious, and yet del Cardayre and his team proved it out on the bench, and later in 1000 liter fermebters, and ultimately in a demonstration at scale in Okeechobee, Florida. The oil price debacle had dimmed the prospects for renewable chemicals and fuels for a while, but California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard has been strongly driving demand, and now ExxonMobil and REG Life Sciences are engaged in some serious work aimed at commercializing the technology, and now Clariant is part of that effort aimed at moving from sugars to biodiesel. More about that here.

If it comes to fruition — you can thank del Cardayre and his team for the heaviest part of the lift. They were like the first, second and third stages of the Saturn V rocket — you might have not seen the Saturn V on the lunar surface when the moonshot became a reality, but they were the vehicles for reaching orbit and translunar injection, the heavy lifters, as Dean Acheson put it, “present at the creation”.

The Bottom Line

These days, the Ave Atque Vale is usually transmitted via digital words upon a digital page — in the the thank-ee’s and press releases of the information age. In this case, we’ll have much more to look at than the words of digital praise. Wherever there is openness in business; innovative thinking; partnerships for technological progress using biotechnology; renewable fuels, feed and materials; and sustainability in the materials and energy we use in our world, there’ll be something in there of Carr, Dinneen, Erickson and del Cardayre.

They have much left to give and accomplish in all the things they will do in the years to come — but we owe them a debt of gratitude even now that is easy to measure and difficult to repay.

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