Biorefining execs explain their quest for partnerships

| September 16, 2011

The magic of ZeaChem’s early success in the biorefining landscape, according to Chris Wilcox, director of business development, is that there is no magic behind ZeaChem. As Wilcox explained during the International Biorefining Conference & Trade Show, the process technology used by the company today is all off-the-shelf and relies on a readily available organism. The success of the company, however, can in large part be attributed to the ability of ZeaChem to form and maintain capital and strategic partners. Wilcox explained that sentiment to the crowd during a panel session based on the topic of biorefining firms leveraging capital and strategic partners, and he was joined by three other companies with a broad range of experience working with outside entities.

Regardless of whether a biorefining company is ready, willing or able to work and partner with other companies, the relationships ZeaChem and the other companies represented on the panel have formed to date reveal that partnerships not only represent an extreme benefit, but they also reveal a positive sign for the industry.

Through their partnership with Proctor & Gamble, Wilcox said the company learned one major thing. “Proctor & Gamble is looking for companies (like ZeaChem) globally. They want to be able to secure cost over a long period of time,” Wilcox explained. And, through its efforts to partner, Proctor & Gamble is committing real dollars to developing biobased chemicals and products, according to Wilcox, offering its testing facilities and even committing to help with the construction of biorefinieries in the future. “We are looking to partner with companies that can create market pull,” Wilcox noted, also telling the crowd about the company’s partnership with Chrysler and the similar enthusiasms for ZeaChem’s ability to not only create renewable fuels, but renewable chemicals for plastics in cars.

Greg Keenan, vice president of business development and engineering for Virent Energy Systems Inc., also spoke before the crowd, explaining both the role and advantages of Virent’s partnerships. “Five years ago,” Keenan said, “we had 20 employees. Today, we have roughly 120 employees. We wouldn’t be here today without those partners behind us.” Keenan, who explained that the majority of his career has been consumed by seeking out and establishing partners, also told the conference attendees that in addition to the current partner list (more than 15) that ranges from energy crop companies like Catchlight Energy, renewable sugar firms like HCL CleanTech, national consortiums or major names like Shell and Cargill, the company from Madison, Wis., also has 12 other partnerships in the works that haven’t yet been announced.

In addition to the general benefits of partnering that Keenan pointed out, ranging from market and supply chain validation, complementary resources, additional revenue or technology diffusion, Keenan also provided tangible examples of how Virent’s outside partners have helped further the company.

“In less than three years,” he explained, “we have taken our product from proof-of-concept to a product demonstration.” When the company first started testing its green gasoline products, the fuel could be used in a lawnmower but that was about it, he said. But through testing for cyclic olefins, acidity levels, benzene, ketones and other aspects like distillation end points, the team at Virent was able to move quickly and create a better product due to the help of Royal Dutch Shell. The Oil major, he said, put some of the world’s best fuel specialists on the task of refining Virent’s fuel. “For a company like Virent,” he said, “that goes beyond economic reach.” Along with the help of Shell, Virent was also able to run a summer-long testing program of the fuel in 10 different vehicles running several thousands of miles to compare the Virent product to traditional petro. The vehicle testing, he noted, was something the company never could have done without the formation of the partnership.

Roman Wolff, president of Enhanced Biofuels, a company that has developed an HS Reactor system, also spoke about the role partnerships have played in the growth of his company. For Wolff, one of the main reasons for companies like his to seek out partnerships is to provide proven credibility and validation to the technology, and the company that created it. “If our alliance partners say we are good enough,” then, he said, “their clients will be more willing to pick us up.”

The true tone and message on the importance and benefit of forming partnerships to succeed in the biorefining industry delivered by the group that also included ThermoChem Recovery International Inc.’s Senior Vice President of Business Development Eric Connor, may have, however, been best summed up by the closing statements of Keenan. “If you are out there and think a partnership might benefit you and Virent,” Keenan said, “just let me know.”