Archive for green innovation

Jul
01

Thinking Beyond Ethanol

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Ethanol as a biofuel may soon reach practical limits in the US and frankly is clouded with questions about its economic and environmental utility. However, the fermentation systems for producing ethanol can be adapted to produce much more valuable products using special microbes developed at some of the most promising green energy and biotech companies. The result is enticing, as we read in “Brazil: The Bossa Nova of Biofuels” from Biofuels Digest:

Another wave of next-generation renewable drop-in fuel companies, Amyris, LS9, Gevo and Dupont, are also investing in and partnering with Brazil’s sugarcane fermentation biorefineries. Why? Because their emerging technologies from cellulosic microbes (yeast, algae, fungus and bacteria) can use the same ethanol fermentation facilities in the US corn belt and in Brazil’s sugarcane belt to produce bio-crude, green diesel, petrol and biojet.

The simplicity is astounding. Here’s the big idea. Take an existing, stranded ethanol factory or conglomerate. Buy it for a substantial discount. Start with cheap sugar. Drop in a new Amyris, LS9, Gevo, or Cobalt microbe/ bug in the same fermentation vat and what do you get? An integrated biorefinery that can use cheap, sustainable sugars to produce renewable diesel, aviation fuel, and biobutanol – fuels that are compatible with existing petroleum pipelines, storage, petrol stations, and vehicle engines today.

In the near future, these fermentation-based biorefineries will be able to convert multiple inputs from cellulosic sugars–bagasse, switchgrass, wood chips, municipal solid waste, and glycerin–into a diverse set Of outputs, including renewable diesel, aviation fuel, bio-crude oil, biochemicals and biopolymers with significant GHG reductions and carbon emissions compared to petrochemical hydrocarbons.

This is an important lesson in innovation. Don’t live with current assumptions. Look at existing technologies, processes, and products as simply a stepping stone to something more valuable, and then ask what is next. If I have raw materials and processing stations that can use microbes to convert sugars into a biofuel, why be satisfied with the least valuable biofuel around? Why not look at the higher-value products that similar technology could produce? That’s the genius behind some of these rising bioproducts companies.

Speaking about bioproducts, let me encourage any chemical engineers out there to join me at the AIChE Annual Meeting, where the Division that I chair, the Forest Bioproducts Division, is hosting numerous sessions dealing with the exciting developments in biorefineries and value-added products from cellulosic biomass. That’s where some of the best potential is: energy and chemical products from something besides the food that people need to eat.

Amyris Biotechnologies logoIn my ongoing work on analyzing the intellectual property landscape in biofuels, one of the most impressive companies I’ve run across is Amyris, a renewable products company whose clever use of synthetic biology goes far beyond biofuels. Amyris was founded by Kinkead Reiling, Neil Renninger, and Jack D. Newman who met at Berkeley and founded Amyris in 2003, headquartered in Emeryville, California. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they first developed their technology under a non-profit initiative to provide a reliable and affordable source of artemisinin, an anti-malarial therapeutic. It was viewed as a long-shot, but they found success that paved the way for the growth of the company into other areas. They are now developing new microbial strains that can produce other useful molecules from renewable feedstocks. This industrial synthetic biology platform is providing alternatives to a broad range of petroleum-sourced products. he extremely useful molecule farnesene is an important part of their business. It provides a compound that can be used to produce flavors, perfumes, detergents, cosmetics, biodiesel, and other products.

This week Amyris created a stir by announcing a record number of deals and partnerships for a single week (a record among bioenergy companies, according to Biofuels Digest). These partnerships include P&G, Total, Soliance, Cosan, M&G Finanziaria, and Shell:

Amyris has taken it up a notch with a series of stunners surrounding its synthetic farsenene, which it has named Biofene – the first product that Amyris is seeking to produce at commercial scale.

Beyond its success this week with Biofene announcements, which are the basis for the P&G, M&G and Soliance partnerships — there are the broader arrangements with Cosan to develop a platform in renewable chemicals, and the equity agreement with Total that will provide needed capital as well as a broader platform for Amyris’s expansion into hydrocarbon fuels.

The mysterious agreement with Shell, regarding diesel, is one to watch. The decidedly vague disclosure was buried in Amyris’ amended S-1A registration statement, but not otherwise mentioned in a flurry of press releases from the company as it promotes its expansion in this pre-IPO environment. Shell Western Trading & Supply is one of 17 Shell trading companies that buy and sell to customers within and outside of Shell.

This news shows an interesting example of companies forming partnerships with an innovative start-up with great technology and apparently highly valuable IP. According to my Patbase search, Amyris has 21 patent families, quite a large number for such a young company. They clearly have been active and aggressive in pursuing patent protection, and those patents are critical for the meaningful partnerships they are now forming. It’s a great unfolding story of open innovation and technology transfer.

The story extends beyond the US. They have operations in Brazil, for example, which is one of the world’s hotbeds for bioenergy, bioproducts, and collaborative innovation.

Further information comes from today’s article, “Amyris: farnesene and the pursuit of value, valuations, validation and vroom,” also from Biofuels Digest.

Spill Cam View

Spill Cam View

While many US citizens are tempted to make political points from the problems we’re facing in the Gulf, there are some basic organizational issues that transcend political parties and get at one of the basic problems in responding to unexpected changes. The problem is bureaucracy and the myriad of personal and departmental incentives that are naturally NOT aligned with the needs of the larger organization (in this case, the nation). The fundamental problem with bureaucracy in both large companies and governments is that there are many disincentives for individuals and groups to do what is right for the larger organization. Each bureaucrat fears future punishment if standard rules and procedures are not followed. If a Coast Guard officer backs down from meticulous safety requirements to be imposed on other vessel and, say, allows an oil cleanup rig to go into service without adequate fire extinguishers, a career might be ruined if fire breaks on that vessel. There are no rewards for being flexible and terrible risks for backing down from the letter of the law, or rather, from the millions of letters in the thousands of pages of rules, procedures, and protocols.

The problem in large organizations, and the US federal government is pretty much the world’s largest, is that numerous entities have their own turf and their own advancement in mind, and without special efforts being taken will naturally work in ways that cause conflict and delay. Leaders must carefully work to align these interests and incentives toward organizational objectives, but this can be almost impossible when an organization gets out of control. Adding a new committee or bureaucracy in addition to everything else will rarely be the most effective path forward. Meanwhile, those who may have the answer and want to bring their expertise to the table find themselves discouraged, worn down, ignored, and ultimately punished for their passion to innovate and help. Welcome to organizational innovation fatigue, and welcome to the Gulf Coast disaster.

Several voices have discussed the need for innovation in dealing with the disastrous oil leak in the Gulf Coast. There are so many intriguing opportunities for technology–oil absorbent materials, new chemistries for dispersing or attacking the oil, controlled burnoffs, skimming and oil collection systems, barrier technologies to keep the oil away, materials that coagulate oil, and a host of proposed technical solutions for addressing the root cause and stopping the leak. Many of the proposals should be considered and tried. This is not the time for bureaucracy. This is not the time for the government to be shutting down efforts with its bureaucracy. If the Coast Guard is worried about inadequate fire extinguishers, round up a batch and take them over to the relief effort to help, not hinder the State of Louisiana as it tries to protect itself. But what the Coast Guard did in this case is akin to what happens thousands of times each day in companies and government around the world, contributing to the innovation fatigue that stymies much needed efforts at innovation and progress.

The V16 Separator of Ocean Therapy Solutions

The V16 Separator of Ocean Therapy Solutions

There are some bright spots of innovation amidst all this mess. Kevin Costner of Hollywood fame has been developing a company with patented technologies for cleaning oil-contaminated water. Ocean Therapy Solutions (http://ots.org) represents a case of successful technology transfer that began in the US Dept. of Energy and some national labs. The technology has now emerged as clever centrifugal separators that split a contaminated stream into highly separated water and oil-rich streams. Portable units mounted on boats can go into contaminated waters and process large quantities of ocean water, recovering oil and returning much cleaner water to the ocean. Their website includes a couple of interesting videos, including one of Kevin testifying before Congress. The system has received relatively little interest for the past decade and the factory has been dormant, but now awareness is rapidly increasing and BP is deploying some of these units for use in the Gulf. A single unit can process 200 gallons per minute or more.

Kudos to Kevin and his team! He certainly has an advantage with his name recognition and extensive networks–without that, he may have been viewed as just another voice in the wind claiming to have something. There are others with technologies and potential solutions. May they also find their way to make a difference. May all the innovation fatigue factors remain far from Kevin Costner and all others seeking to bring something new to help us fix the Gulf Coast disaster.

Jan
15

The Forest Bioproducts and Paper Industries: The Need to Conquer Innovation Fatigue

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The North American paper industry suffers from a largely undeserved image problem. Many view it as an antiquated smokestack industry, when it has been a leader in exciting areas in technology and business practice. Fans of biofuels and green energy, for example, should know about the pioneeing efforts from the forest bioproducts industries, including many paper companies. “Green energy” from forest biomass has been the basis for economic success in pulp production for decades. A kraft mill burning black liquor is a stellar example of recovering useful energy from the byproducts of a renewable resource, coupled with smart recycling and regeneration of chemicals.

The industry has also been an important part of advances in practical aspects of RFID technology, in supply chain management, in green labeling and packaging, and in many other area. In nanotechnology, papermakers have actually been dealing with nanoparticles and complex colloids for decades, producing increasingly useful and practical products built with nanotechnology employed at a massive scale. In plant genetics, crop management, and stewardship over bio-resources, the forest products industry have demonstrated world-class capabilities and results. Industry stewardship has led to more trees and forest lands in the United States than we had a century ago. Advances in plant management have led to almost miraculous results such as the ability of carefully managed plantations of eucalyptus trees in Brazil to yield trees that can be harvested after just five years – and perhaps even less in the near future.

But with the proud history of innovation and leadership that I see in the forest products industry, it pains me to see how little recognition it received, and how little sense of that tradition seems to be alive in the industry today. On too many counts, the industry appears to be seized with innovation fatigue.

In the new book from John Wiley and Sons, Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar, we identify sources of innovation fatigue factors in three primary areas: the behavior of individuals including innovators themselves and the people around them (“people fatigue”), organizational-level flaws such as flaws in vision and decision making (“organizational fatigue”), and external factors such as challenges in IP law, burdensome regulations, tax policies, and trade policies. It is easy to point fingers at management and criticize their lack of courage or willingness to invest, but we must recognize that the forest products industry have faced unusually painful burdens due to external factors which have only strengthened systematic incentives to cut back on innovation and focus on cost-cutting.

There is a need for policy makers to consider the “voice of the innovator” and the unintended harmful impact that some laws and policies can have on long-term innovation. Policies are needed that put manufacturing industry on a more equal footing relative to global competitors who are generally free of the numerous burdens North American industry faces. Policies are needed that reduce the many disincentives corporations may face to be innovative and more visionary here on North American soil.

Meanwhile, there are other things that North American industry can do. Innovation, whether in business models, products, or processes, must be viewed not as an expense to avoid, but as a necessity to survive. The key may not be to conduct detailed research related to the commodities now being produced, but to boldly explore adjacencies and new product spaces as MeadWestvaco did. We see some of this in the biofuels area, such as creative approaches to integrated biorefineries using technologies suited for local biomass and other local resources and markets. We see this in many of the packaging innovations created by innovators in paper-related companies. We see this in the example of companies like Kimberly-Clark that transformed themselves from commodity makers to producers of world-class high-value consumer products rich with innovation and intellectual property.

The most exciting innovations of the future will come at the intersection of disciplines. Building the right relationships and networks across companies, innovators, and institutions will be needed to be aware of the possibilities and to seize them. The technologies we are using today and the know-how we have developed in the forest products industries may be the foundation for rich innovations in nanotechnology, health care, electronics, and various emerging fields, if only we have the courage to explore wisely, with talented minds empowered and motivated to find the paths forward, unhindered by the chains of innovation fatigue.

This post is related to a longer article written for Tappi360 magazine, Dec. 2009.

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InnovationFatigue.com is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.