The Times Have Found You: Heard on the Floor at ABLC 2019

April 4, 2019 |

“The Times Have Found You and Caught Up with your Vision,” said former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in his opening keynote at ABLC 2019, as the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference got underway in Washington DC. 

“Now, make sure you do not make perfect the enemy of good. Deploy the technologies of today and keep working on the innovations for tomorrow, but don’t delay because those new technologies will one day arrive. Move into this generation, and then to the next, and then the next. The world is rapidly turning toward a better type of bottom line, and companies that are buying carbon offset will one day be buying into solutions that are better.”

ABLC 2019’s vibe

The tone of ABLC was upbeat, though the floor was unexpectedly choked with oil company executives, avowedly shopping for attractive, cost competitive solutions with renewable attributes.  Some 10 percent of all ABLC attendees this year come from strategics seeking solutions.

The jury is still out whether it is climate change, the spectra of a world filled with electric vehicles, or the prospect of a low-sulphur marine diesel market in 2020 that has the incumbents spooked, but spooked they are.

US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue

In the afternoon, the Digest unveiled  an industry survey which identified “cutting red tape and enabling regulatory relief” as the number one concern of bioeconomy executives in realizing the potential of their technologies, and introduced US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for his keynote as the “hardest-working man in America when it comes to cutting red tape in agriculture.” The Digest went on to observe: “The next time you open a biorefinery you might consider having, instead of a ribbon, a red tape. You might just get the Secretary to come and cut it for you.”

Perdue took the stage and observed, “I love risk takers, entrepreneurs like all of you here.  Taking products from agriculture, new developments, and creating jobs in rural America, support bioeconomy that you are all creators. 

“Some of you are investing in biomass conversion, or new product pathways, or new plant gene editing techniques, or research to link the bridge. Public policy plays a huge role, and we thing that we should “Give you the rules and you’ll figure out how to play by the rules, stop changing the rules because it goes back and forth and slows things down.

“What we want to build is a stable platform of confidence to move forward on technologies you are developing. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Plants capturing carbon is a good step. USDA just yesterday released study finding that GHG emissions of corn ethanol are 39% lower than gasoline than energy equivalent basis. Corn farmers would love to have more markets and more utilization of their product. We’ve had good news for the bioeconomy in the Farm Bill and we’re rushing to implement,\. 

“Title 9 of farm bill expands those opportunities for biorefinery investments. Title 7 encourages investments in alternative energy. We are holding listening sessions around the country so we can implement it as soon as possible. Another item is Year-round E15, President Trump is keeping promise to the agricultural sector to expand E15 to year-round. Now consumers will be in charge at the pump. 

“And there’s new innovations you are bringing forward. Like the [LanzaTech /Aemetis ] biotechnology project using orchard waste that is currently landfilled or burned. Or the [Red Rock Biofuels] project in Oregon using forest waste — and  thinning is a good thing — to make renewable jet and diesel fuel in Oregon.”

At ABLC, the roar of the strategics, the advance on cannabis, and deal-making a-go-go

ABLC’s opening day at the Jefferson Auditorium is focused on feedstocks and supply-chain, and the renewed buzz around novel crops was unmistakable; algae, which scored a huge win in the 2018 Farm Bill, was much in evidence, but pennycress, carinata, camelina, pongamia, jute, and especially cannabis and its cousin hemp were buzzing on the floor. And it was noted by many that there were as many strategics on the floor as smaller biobased project developers. Are strategics — especially oil companies — more motivated by the maturing technologies they see as now investment-ready, or by the increasing demands of emissions policy to lower carbon intensity, or by the existential threat posed by electric cars? No one was making definitive statements, but the days of ABLC having a handful of observers from the likes of Exxon, Shell, BP and Chevron appear to be over — big delegations were the order of the day, and avowedly in search of attractive technologies.

Diversification was the order of the day. Where once ABLC focused almost exclusively on fuels, adding chemicals as a focal point in the early 2010s, the topics were on the floor and on stage included smart farms, advanced materials, superfoods, healthcare, beauty, and the underlying opportunities in genetics, process, transmission, intelligence, storage, and mobility systems and platforms. Diversity of geography was also in evidence — heavier than usual delegations from Asia were particularly of note.

The Bottom Line

ABLC picks up for its first main-stage day on Thursday with the Domestic Policy Forum, the Holmberg Award for Lifetime Achievement to Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Industry Horizons Forum featuring major CEOs from around the world, the Global Bioeconomy Leadership Award to POET CEO Jeff Broin, and the announce of the 50 Hottest Companies in the Advanced Bioeconomy at 615pm Eastern time. All the action will be live streamed on BioChannel.TV from 8am Eastern time.

 

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