Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Interview with Pat Gruber, Gevo
Pat Gruber is CEO of Gevo (www.gevo.com), a venture funded renewable fuels startup based in Englewood, Colorado. Gevo recently moved to Colorado from California, where the firm started as a spinout of Caltech. The firm is venture backed by Vinod Khosla's Khosla Ventures, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Green Fund, and Burrill & Company. We recently had a quick chat with Pat about the company and what it's working on.
What's the story behind Gevo?
Pat Gruber: The story about Gevo is we're an advanced biofuels company. We take pretty much any fermentable sugar, don't care if it comes from a cellulosic or other source, and we convert that into a C4 alcohol like isobutanol. Isobutanol is dollar for dollar more valuable than ethanol. The reason is, it addresses some of the vapor pressure issues, good energy, and fits into the existing infrastructure. The other factor with isobutanol is we go in there with chemistry and make it into hydrocarbons. It's very economical to do that, and we can make things like gasoline and diesel fuel.
How far along is the technology?
Pat Gruber: We hope to have it commercial in two years. We're underachieving if we don't do it in two years.
There seem to be a lot of people in the biofuels market nowadays, what's the differentiation of what you're doing from others?
Pat Gruber: I don't think there's anyone doing what we're doing. We've got a mix of people from the industry, we're super experienced, we have about 130 years of experience combined, exactly in this field. We're a 40 person company, so we're extremely experienced, we've done this before. In terms of technology, nobody has got what we got. We have 60-70 patents filed. When you get down to it, and talk about who can be successful, what it comes down to is how close can you get to the floor in costs. To get to the floor of costs, you've got to approach the cost of the raw materials itself. It's how good you are on your yield. Some technologies are better than others. So if you're super efficient, maximize yields throughout, you can be successful. There are one or two technologies that will never do that. Those guys will be done, and everyone else will still stand.
What's your opinion on all the talk about biofuels driving up the cost of food prices?
Pat Gruber: That's one that it strikes me that it's an emotional response. Fundamentally, I think it's got people talking about the fact that people are important. You'd never want a circumstance where biofuels would take food away from people. This is about fundamental supply and demand, that's why prices have increased, food production across the world is down, there's a drought, and there's all sorts of things going on, and people want and answer and want to point a finger. What's interesting is the corn one--the corn used for ethanol is number 2 yellow dent corn. That's a feed corn. I can guarantee you've never eaten it. Animal could it eat, but when you produce ethanol, every pound that you produce you get about a third of a pound of animal feed. So it's not quite so straightforward. There's a lot of illogic here. It's not like if you plant corn you're not planting rice--they grow at different latitudes. How about soybeans? Well, corn plantings are down something like 7 percent in the U.S., but soybeans are up. Why? Farmers have a right to make money. How much corn is in a box of corn flakes? What's the value of it out of a $4 - $5 dollar box? Maybe a nickel. So what are people talking about?