6 Degrees of Innovation: From the Playboy Mansion to a hot renewables tech in 6 steps

July 3, 2017 |

The sixth season of the reality show Kendra on Top commenced on the WE Network this past week, a spin-off from the Playboy Playmate reality show Girls Next Door, which ran from 2005 to 2010. With Girls Next Door, I never quite figured out if the show’s title referred to the guest house at the Playboy Mansion, or the actual house next door at 500 South Mapleton Drive in Los Angeles’s exclusive Holmby Hills. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner owned both.

But I smiled when I thought of it, not because of the show, but because of an underlying tale, one with a bioeconomy ending.

You see, next week, at the DOE’s annual Bioeconomy conference in the Washington DC area, four companies will pitch their business propositions to a panel of four investors and industry experts. That’s The Pitch, and I hope you make it there to one of the highlights of the DOE’s must-do industry event. And there’s a shaggy connection all the way back from The Pitch to the Playboy Mansion. Allow me to explain.

The Pitch

First, some background on The Pitch. It’s Shark Tank, but a little more educational, and the minnows get a little more constructive advice than in the well-known reality program. The panel will provide advice and guidance to the companies on how to successfully pitch their businesses to potential investors and offer tips on how to capture investors’ interests.

Returning panelists this year are Geoff Duyk, Managing Director and Partner, TPG Alternative and Renewable Technologies; Brian Baynes, Partner at Flagship Pioneering; Mark Riedy, Partner, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP; and joining the panel for the first time this year is Ron Cascone, Principal at Nexant. These guys are value creation rock stars.

Four presenters will have 15 minutes each to make “The Pitch” and they are:

Michael (Mike) Perry, CEO, Forest Concepts
Ryan Powell, Co-Founder, Manta Biofuel
John Hannon, COO, Vertimass
Girish Srinivas, Partner, TDA Research, Inc.

We’ve seen a number of companies that originally appeared at The Pitch make their way into the Hot 40, the Hottest Emerging Companies in the Advanced Bioeconomy. From the 2015 Pitch, both Mango Materials and Industrial Microbes, and from the 2016 Pitch, Sylvatex.

Sylvatex has the potential to be a breakout star. One application of its technology splash blends a fuel additive called MicroX into diesel or biodiesel, at blend rates expected to be around 10 percent (although it can blend above 40%). In the additive is an low-cost oxygenate, it’s nano-scale encapsulated ethanol, and Sylvatex’s technology does the nano-scale encapsulation.

Companies have been pursuing ethanol-diesel blends for years. O2 Diesel was one entrant, and there was G2 Diesel. In Sylvatex’s case. When blended into ULSD, MicroX improves fuel properties, lowers the carbon-intensity of blended fuel, and reduces NOx emissions up to 13% and particulate matter up to 57%.

Now, how do we get back from ethanol-diesel blends to The Playboy Mansion, exactly?

We start with the afore-mentioned G2 Diesel. It was a project from 11 Good Energy, and Good Energy continues today as one of the largest energy aggregators in the country. Company president was once a young Max Hoover, a scion of the Hoover vacuum cleaner fortune. A small side venture eventually became G2 Diesel.

From the Hoovers we travel back to California via the glamorous and always interesting Anne Winston Sandefer, who was married to James C. Hoover, one of the primary heirs to the Hoover zillions. Sandefer had divorced Malcolm McNaghten Jr. to marry Hoover, and we’ll need to backtrack a little because McNaghten is no longer a household name.

The house that is now the Playboy Mansion was originally built for Arthur Letts, the wealthy owner of The Broadway department store empire; Letts developed Holmby Hills as a real-estate venture. The house next door belonged to his daughter and son-in-law, and those were the Malcolm McNaghtens. Sandefer had married the heir in 1947.

Holmby Hills remains, as then, a tiny but intensely glamorous neighborhood between Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. Walt Disney and Clark Gable lived there, to name two. The Holmby Hills Rat Pack evolved from a regular gathering at the Bogarts into The Rat Pack of Sinatra, Martin & Davis fame. Bing Crosby lived two doors away, and the Crosby house was eventually purchased by Aaron Spelling, who built his 123-room Manor there — which is currently on sale for $200 million, in case you’re looking for a place to live.

But Sandefer was no slouch and a minor heiress herself. She was the niece of the childless CEO of Standard Oil of California who doubled as the founding CEO of Saudi Aramco, and a key guy in pushing the Republican Party towards Eisenhower over Taft in 1952; her American roots went all the way back to the Mayflower.

She was raised at 515 North Camden Street in Beverly Hills, and it was quite a block, Hedy Lamarr, Basil Rathbone, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Leslie Howard were there. and Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier lived across the street at #520 while Leigh filmed Gone With the Wind.

So that’s glamorous Holmby Hills and some Beverly Hills to boot, and you’ve got the connection now from the Playboy Mansion all the way to the Rat Pack, and through to the Hoovers.

So, what can we make of this entertaining connection?

I’ll give you two thoughts on that for Independence Day, and then we’ll close with a thought on Sylvatex.

First, we don’t always know how connected we are, and how technology breakthroughs often have the most perplexing and obscure roots and connecting points. Steve Jobs talked about this in his landmark commencement speech at Stanford a few years back, which you can read here. Doors open other doors, the stories of individuals take strange turns, and sometimes getting vehind “the future” is a good idea because innovation rains all kinds of positive benefits on a connected world.

Second, investing in Hollywood films, wildcat oil wells or industrial biotechnology first commercials — these are risky propositions, but risky in part because they are poorly structured. Invest not only the agents of change, but in the survivors and the beneficiaries of change. In the Age of the Dinosaurs, you could have invested in meteorite defense tech, but why not invest in mammals?

Take for example, the Playboy Mansion. It was originally an expense item, but when it sold it was worth half the value of Playboy Enterprises. Innovation and emerging brands disrupt many things, but the most important thing they disrupt is land value.

Back to the Future, and Sylvatex

At the heart of its technology, Sylvatex changes the way that oil & water interface, much the same as The Pitch intends to change the way that investors and emerging companies interface.

What’s intriguing is this finding from Sylvatex:

“Sylvatex completed demonstrations on a light-duty passenger vehicle using a 43% blendstock…results showed no change in fuel consumption.”

I think the industry will be very interested to learn more about that. We’ve seen in the past that there are “sweet spots” where ethanol’s other attributes (e.g. octane) offset its lack of energy density, but the idea that you can put a 40%+ ethanol blend (nano-scale encapsulated) into a gallon of diesel and see no increase in fuel consumption is something that shouts out for more study and further confirmation. If broadly true, it would be a real breakthrough — but scientists may struggle in the short term to explain how that might work, given that ethanol has something like 40% lower energy density than diesel.

Sometimes the magic is in the mixology and you never know, maybe there’s a breakthrough in here.

More about The Pitch 2017

Michael (Mike) Perry, CEO, Forest Concepts 

Ryan Powell, Co-Founder, Manta Biofuel

John Hannon, COO, Vertimass

Girish Srinivas, Partner, TDA Research, Inc.

More about the DOE’s Bioeconomy 2017, here.

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