McAfee wins 2023 Global Bioeconomy Leadership Award

March 12, 2023 |

The great songwriter Sammy Cahn was often asked what comes first, the lyrics or the music? And Sammy would answer, the phone call. Which is to say, first there is the project, and later the magic happens. As for music, films, plays, ballets, so it is for the bioeconomy.

Long before there is a technology at scale, there is an entrepreneur crafting a vision. How it will work, and work here, not there. Work now, not later. Work because of this policy, not that one. This feedstock, not that one. This technology, not that one. They say it takes a village to build a bioeconomy, but it also takes a village of decisions and most of them have to be right, and the most important of them have to be absolutely right.

It’s the risk of failure that causes reticence, reticence is the enemy of change, leadership is the enemy of risk.

Leaders look farther down the road than others, ask the same questions but weigh and parse the answers with more precision, a leader is in the lead because that person has learned to succeed without using the old strategy of following the other guy. In bioeconomy leadership, there’s no other guy to follow, it is all Terra Nova, new found land, there are no footprints in the sand, no map to rely on, no lighthouse guarding the reef, no chart to show the prevailing wind, no calendar by which the seasons of good weather are marked.

So, leadership is hard, and the only thing that makes it easier is the rapid acquisition of local knowledge, and that is why global leadership is even harder, because it is impossible to acquire the knowledge to do everything, everywhere, all at once, and local conditions apply, local conditions rule.

Because true leadership is a hard skill to acquire, we often trivialize and aver that global leadership means simply climbing a stage and declaiming to other people how to do useful things with their money or time.  

In fact, global leadership is climbing off the stage and doing useful things with one’s own money and time. As I wrote recently, the real progressives are the ones who actually make progress. The true agents of change are the ones who actually make change.

Setting a new standard through personal achievement is the mark of global leadership. Global leaders have stepped into the future and come back to tell us that the future works, that things will connect, policies we are unsure of will provide crucial support, technologies we doubt will succeed, supplies we fear are in scarcity will be abundant and affordable, hard-to-find labor will be available, the required capital will be found, and the patience we struggle to achieve will be replete. Global leaders can tell us these things because they have made these things happen. They return from the New World to tell us about a model that can be replicated, the world is changed not by invention but through replication, and global leadership shows us the model. They build Store #1, they lead Fleet #1, they are Discoverer #1. They are the Day #1 people.

I don’t know exactly how many companies Eric McAfee has founded, it’s a little like guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar, but I can say a few words about a couple of his most recent ventures, and Aemetis in particular. It is a company that seeks from a platform of proven and conventional technology — specifically, a corn ethanol operation near Modesto, California — to develop and deploy new technology that unlocks new low-cost and abundant feedstocks that materially reduce the carbon intensity of the energy we use in everyday life. The venture is now producing biogas and RNG from dairy waste using anaerobic digestion; on the cusp of achieving robust carbon storage; soon, to be producing sustainable aviation fuel and diesel from low-cost wastes; all while under the scrutiny of the skeptical public markets, all while continuing to operate the original facility. And, the company produces another carbon-advantaged fuel molecule, biodiesel, in India, using advanced technology that unlocks otherwise unusable feedstocks.

That’s innovation, that’s entrepreneurship, that’s persistence, that’s the example needed of a circular bioeconomy unto itself, a symphony of technology that takes individual lines of innovation and harmonizes them until something transformative has appeared: in music, it’s polyphony, in the bioeconomy, it’s polyenergy. It’s not been seen before, and it’s an example that sits like a constellation in the sky by which other entrepreneurs can safely steer their ships to shore.

It is an honor to announce that the 2023 Global Bioeconomy Leadership Award is given to Eric McAfee, founder and CEO of Aemetis. At a ceremony on Friday, March 24th at 9am ET at ABLC 2023, we will have a chance to honor our 2023 laureate in person.

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