The Northwest has a surplus of creative people trying to find green solutions for difficult problems, but those people often lack capital and find themselves operating in an unstable marketplace. Those innovators may have an advantage in Oregon.
The state offers several incentive programs and uses Lottery money to fund Oregon BEST, which is holding its annual one-day festival today at Portland State University’s campus. BEST stands for Built Environmental & Sustainable Technologies Center. The organization connects green businesses with universities to maximize resources. It also awards grants.
Trillium FiberFuels in Corvallis earned a BEST commercialization grant this year.
The company, founded in 2006, began looking for ways to turn rye grass straw into fuel after Oregon tightened its field burning regulations. In the BEST model, Trillium teamed with Oregon State University’s Christine Kelly, a chemical engineer, applied for and received federal grants. And, to be efficient, the team turned to eBay for its equipment needs.
“How you build an equipment startup has radically changed because of eBay,” says Chris Beatty, one of Trillium’s founders. “Nearly everything we own came from eBay.”
From bio-reactors (fancy fermenters) to liquid chromatography equipment, the company saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by watching prices come down on the internet site, Beatty says. “We are ruthless and fearless buyers on eBay.”
Then the science began, converting the xylose (a sugar derived from the straw and corn cobs) to fuel. The cost of the xylose, however, was becoming prohibitive, so the Trillium people decided to buy in bulk. The bulk buying was so successful that last year a new company was born: Cascade Analytical Reagents and Biochemicals. The team’s web-based venture sells lab-grade sucrose, xylose, wheat straw, rice hulls, pine shavings, the stuff from which new fuels may come.
Trillium uses some of the profits from the new business to carry it through the economic downturn and the volatility in the green revolution. The company’s goal is to patent a fuel-making process for xylose that doesn’t require toxic chemicals, such as those used in petroleum production.
Uncertainty in the market is one of the major barriers for companies trying to develop environmentally friendly products. That vulnerability, in part, is the result of incentive programs that last only a few years, says David Kenney, Oregon BEST’s executive director.
“A lot of tax cuts are adopted for two to three years at a time,” Kenney says. Companies and investors need incentives that will be in place for 10 to 20 years, he says.
Some incentives, such as those that accompanied Federal stimulus money, have worked in Oregon.
ReVolt Technology, a Norwegian company that developed a rechargeable, zinc-air battery, opened its U.S. headquarters in Portland after landing a $5 million federal grant and $6.8 million in state incentives. In Portland, ReVolt is developing a zinc-air battery for electric cars.
Another Portland-based company, Architectural Applications received federal stimulus funding to support its development of a building air conditioning system that uses less energy than traditional air conditioning systems.
Navigating the federal grant system isn’t always easy, and part of Oregon BEST’s job is to help companies know where the money is and how to apply for it.
“We can connect people to other people who have successfully written grants,” Kenney says.
Connecting companies with universities laboratories and brain trusts lowers risks for investors, too, Kenney says. BEST networks with four universities and 190 faculty members. The schools include Oregon Institute of Technology, Oregon State University, Portland State University and the University of Oregon.
When companies have grant support and have strong science and technology behind their work, investors are more likely to accept some risk.
“The key thing is to get private investment from people who are looking to make money,” Kenny says.
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
Share your experiences as part of EarthFix's Public Insight Network.
Join our Public Insight Network!