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The Entrepreneurial Mentor Corps at Work: Algaeventure Systems

February 24, 2011 - 3:57pm

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The Algaeventure team | photo courtesy of Algaeventure Systems

The Algaeventure team | photo courtesy of Algaeventure Systems

Last week, we told you about the launch of an “Entrepreneurial Mentor Corps,” a one-year pilot program to connect clean energy startups with mentors who can help support these companies through early-stage challenges and increase their chance for success. The program is a partnership of the Department of Energy and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and targets clean energy small businesses who have previously received financial assistance from the Department through the Recovery Act.  

Algaeventure Systems (AVS) is one of many innovative new companies participating in the mentorship program. The company was founded in 2008, and received $5.9 million in funding from the Department’s ARPA-E program in 2009. But the AVS story really began in 2004, when Univenture (AVS’s parent company) began to explore the idea of producing plastic from renewable sources rather than the standard petroleum-based plastic.

At that time, Univenture focused on inventing and manufacturing media packaging for CD and DVD sleeves. Founder and CEO Ross O. Youngs began the company in 1988 out of a basement with a $20,000 personal bank loan. By using a household clothes iron as a makeshift welding tool, he developed the prototype of a lighter, cheaper, sturdier, and more environmentally friendly media package. Two loans from the Small Business Administration helped the tiny company begin production, and by 1998 Ross had been named the National Small Business Person of the Year by Vice President Al Gore and made Inc. Magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing, privately-held companies in the United States for five years in a row.

A few years ago, Ross and the folks at Univenture realized that their core business -- CDs and DVDs -- was being phased out by increasing digital music sales. Ross then decided it was necessary to invest three years of the company’s profits in research and development to find a new line of business, which brought them to their search for a sustainably-produced plastic that could compete with the standard petroleum-based plastics used by most plastic manufacturers.

After researching the plastics capabilities of several types of plants, they realized that algae held the potential to sustainably produce plastics with comparable performance characteristics to that of petroleum-based plastics. However, in order for algae to be a viable resource, processing technology needed to be substantially improved. It was then that AVS spun-off from Univenture in order to develop technologies that would improve algae processing so that the resulting discoveries could be commercialized.

Now, AVS is taking the key cost barriers out of growing and processing algae -- the dewatering and harvesting stages. The company’s harvester pulls water from the algae using capillary action, which radically reduces the energy required by standard centrifuge-based approaches to dewater algae or separate solids from dilute solutions.

AVS’s innovation is being applied to several unlikely markets, ranging from pharmaceuticals to fuels to food processing and even oil spill recovery efforts. Much like any entrepreneur, Ross has made many intuitive leaps to create new products, with several successes. Now that he’s entered the clean energy industry, Ross is using the Entrepreneurial Mentor Corps pilot program to get advice from other industry experts.

If you want to know more about AVS and other innovators from across the energy, business and government sectors, it’s not too late to register for the ARPA-E Technology Showcase next week at the ARPA-E Innovation Summit, where the AVS innovation will be featured along with many other exciting new energy ventures. 

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