Issue Date: April 25, 2011
A 1970 Dodge Challenger drove Patrick R. Gruber toward a career path that, back in those days, didn’t even exist. As a high school student, Gruber was unable to afford fuel for the gas-guzzler, and he decided then it would be a good idea to replace petroleum with something better.
Since that time, Gruber, 50, has pursued the dream of replacing petroleum with unyielding intensity. Today, he is the chief executive officer of Gevo, a company that plans to ferment sugar into isobutyl alcohol for making renewable chemicals and fuels. The firm was backed in its early stages by venture capital wizard Vinod Khosla. Last month, it raised more than $123 million in an initial public offering of stock.
Well before he became a CEO, Gruber realized he had the science chops needed to help high school auto enthusiasts. After earning degrees in chemistry and biology from the University of St. Thomas, he moved on to the University of Minnesota for a Ph.D. in biological chemistry. And for good measure, he got an M.B.A. from the same school.
“I wanted to work at the interface,” Gruber tells C&EN, explaining his interest in both chemistry and biology. “That was when genetic engineering was really new science and a hot topic.”
It turned out to be just the right time to pursue what Gruber had in mind, which he describes by asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make chemicals from renewable resources and get rid of oil?” With a Ph.D. in hand, Gruber went on to work at agribusiness heavyweight Cargill.
He stayed there for 20 years. “At Cargill, I worked on half a dozen projects,” Gruber says. “The biggest was plastics from corn—polylactic acid. I was very lucky that I spent my whole professional career working on what I wanted to do.”
While at Cargill, Gruber gained a bit of notoriety by making the first batch of polyactic acid (PLA) on his kitchen stove with the help of his wife.
“I didn’t have a lab at the time; our Cargill lab was being worked on,” he recalls. “So we made some prototypes at home. We made paper coated with plastic, other plastic coatings, and films. We packaged candy with polymer made from corn.” Gruber then showed his colleagues at Cargill. “It blew them away. Up until then I thought, ‘These guys don’t get it. I’ve got to show them.’ ”
The Cargill PLA project turned into a business called NatureWorks. In 2003, NatureWorks began producing PLA as a replacement for plastics such as polystyrene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in packaging and food service applications. It was a tough sell, Gruber acknowledges. “To a consumer, a cup is a cup is a plastic cup.” But to industrial customers, PLA represented additional costs. Tests had to be conducted. Supply chains had to be redirected. Molding machines had to be changed.
“Lesson learned: Don’t do anything new,” Gruber concluded. He has taken this lesson with him to Gevo. The company plans to sell biobased isobutyl alcohol, a four-carbon alcohol, as a drop-in replacement for petrochemically derived isobutyl alcohol. And as a fuel component, isobutyl alcohol can be blended directly with gasoline with fewer complications than ethanol.
“Our game is really all about cleaner, greener, cost competitive or cheaper; to make the exact same molecules that the petrochemical industry knows how to use—and use reliably. From that we can make a business,” Gruber says.
The other lesson he took away from his time at NatureWorks was about money. Building a facility to scale up PLA manufacturing cost $300 million. For a young enterprise, that level of capital investment can be a handicap when it has to compete against established firms. “It was brutal, expensive, and hard,” Gruber says. “I’m not doing that again.”
Instead, Gevo has told investors that it will retrofit existing ethanol plants to make isobutyl alcohol at a cost of as little as $50 million per facility. In September 2010, the company acquired a 22 million-gal-per-year ethanol plant in Luverne, Minn. Gruber expects to have it producing isobutyl alcohol by early 2012.
Although developing PLA was arduous, Gruber makes the case that Gevo exists because of hard-won experience at Cargill. Gevo staffers such as David Glassner, executive vice president of technology, and Christopher Ryan, executive vice president of business development, are former NatureWorks scientists who are now developing renewable isobutyl alcohol with knowledge gained at the interface of chemistry, biology, and agriculture.
For example, Gruber says, his team developed proprietary technology to separate isobutyl alcohol from water after the fermentation step. It was a hurdle that experts in the petrochemical industry said would be too high.
But biologists can get it wrong, too, Gruber points out. “The products we have from chemistry are superb. Polypropylene and PET are superb. Synthetic rubber is very good. We should make them better by making them from renewables and at the same cost.” He adds, “With chemistry, the steps are already optimized; they’ve done it for 30 years. We believe in the best of both worlds.”
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