Business Profile: Blue Marble Biomaterials

By JEFF MANGAN, mtbusiness.com

Make it Missoula is excited to collaborate with our good friend, Jeff Mangan of mtbusiness.com on a new series of interviews and profiles on Missoula-based businesses.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

We had the opportunity to speak with Kelly Ogilvie, CEO of Blue Marble Biomaterials.  Kelly, tell us about Blue Marble and what the company does.

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

Blue Marble is a renewable chemical company. We take plant material and go through a process of feeding it to bacteria. The bacteria in-turn manufactures chemicals that are replacements for petrochemicals. So we are really manufacturing specialty chemicals from plant material, whereas it would traditionally come from petroleum.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

I imagine it is a lot harder than it sounds.

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

A little bit! A little bit!

Jeff Mangan,mtbusiness.com

A bit more advanced! I read the initial press release about the Advanced Manufacturing Initiative. How does the initiative fit into all this?

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

We went to the White House last year and had a chance to participate in a Round Table Discussion with other industry manufacturing leaders. The conversation centered around, “How do we stimulate manufacturing in the U.S. because that is the key to sustainable jobs and economic recovery”

The conversation then centralized, “what do we have in the United States that we can leverage?” One of the areas discussed was biomass. What do we have or do better than anywhere else in the world?  And the answer to that was ‘innovate’.

The conversation that emerged “what does the future US biomass economy look like”?  That is where biotechnology came into the picture and we were invited to this conversation to show a perspective on what will it look like fifty to a hundred years from now when petroleum may be declining or going away if we run out of it – or not – or we just want a better solution for it. How do we get the things that we use in our everyday lives from things like plant material?

The Advanced Manufacturing project discussion wasn’t just about biomass, it was specifically focused on how do you leverage the resources here and develop a product that goes into items and food that we use daily.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

Does the initiative then have money or capital to allow you to jumpstart that part of your business?

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

Yes that’s right. They allocated five hundred million dollars to the Advanced Manufacturing Initiative Program, which is just a drop in the bucket of what really is necessary. Now, whether we are going to be recipients of any funding is way too early to tell. We are definitely going to participate in whatever programs that are being rolled out, however.

This is a cost-cutting initiative; it is not just as though there is going to be a bucket of money at the Department of Commerce. It is going to be rolled into different initiatives coming out of the Department of Energy and also the USDA, or even DARPA. DARPA just came out recently with a solicitation for something they call living foundries.

DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These are the guys that invented the internet and the predator attack drone: they do really interesting cutting edge hard tech. They say, “We do the hard stuff.”

DARPA came out and said, “Okay, we’re launching a new initiative and we want to build living foundries.” The basic concept around living foundries is living machines. How do we get bacteria, yeast, mold, algae – whatever organisms we decide we want to work together – to form an ecosystem to build things that we need for us?

That’s an interesting idea. You have this advanced technology component to manufacturing coming into play – whether it is from a biological end, or software to make processes more efficient. It is a cost-cutting deal.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

And you have taken that concept now and launched the first bio-refinery in the United States – correct?

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue MarbleBiomaterials

There are other bio-refineries – but what we have done is launched the first zero waste refinery that focuses on specialty chemicals.

It is a first because when you think about specialty chemicals – and we are kind of getting into the rabbit hole here but it is important – when you produce specialty chemicals from traditional petroleum products it is a very intensive process, from a water intensity perspective, from the power requirements, to things like harsh chemicals to create different types of chemicals.

What we are doing is taking plant material, feeding it into these reactors full of these ecosystems of bacteria who are working to produce molecules in low-intensity environments. Our system is low energy intensity, low water intensity, low carbon intensity, and no harsh chemicals –  traditional production is very intensive in each of these areas.

The end product of our process is clean water and solid biomass, which is sort of like a mud that we dry down. We are investing in what we see as cutting edge technology that blends biology, chemistry and good business practices.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

And you are taking that technology and you are turning feedstock into flavors and fragrance chemicals – correct?

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

Yes, that’s correct. A good example is a chemical called ethyl butyrate – and that is just really ethanol and butyric acid together. What is that chemical? It is the flavor of Juicy Fruit gum. That is ethyl butyrate.

What we are doing, instead of taking petrochemicals to make ethyl butyrate, we are using plant material. It is worked through the process of molecular synthesis and manufactured at room temperature. A very different process than how it is being made today.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

So you are basically making flavors and fragrances from natural products rather than petrochemicals.

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

Correct. That’s correct. Natural chemicals. When you think about the statistics about how much petroleum we have in our everyday lives, it is not just in our gas tanks, right? I mean, it is not just an issue of diesel, gas and jet fuel – petroleum is in almost every consumer product, in the form of petrochemicals.

We are dealing with what we call the “other oil problem”, which is: how do we replace everything else that goes into our supply chain and engrained in our culture currently?

We are working on fun stuff and starting by making food flavoring and cosmetic ingredients – a great place to start. Some people laugh; they’re like, “Ha ha! You’re making Juicy Fruit Gum!” or, “You make cosmetic mascara ingredients…” But when you think about it, from the economic perspective, it makes total sense for small companies like ours to focus on the very, very highest value that we can so we can begin to scale and grow, and then replace larger volume products as we scale. Does that make sense?

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

Yes. And I would assume that most people think that those products are already made naturally in a sense anyway, not from petroleum – so, yes, it makes perfect sense.

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

And that is not to say that there aren’t natural cosmetic products out there; there certainly are natural flavoring and cosmetic products. The question is how are they made? You know, just because you have palm oil in a cosmetic does not make it sustainable; it doesn’t make it good for the environment. The way that palm oil is harvested currently is devastating for the environment. What we want do to do is find a way to get these ingredients that go into our personal care products – whether it be food or cosmetics – that are sourced from something that actually has a net positive impact on the environment, not destroying food or destroying the environment.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

Where you don’t have to clear-cut the rain forest to do it.

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

That’s right. That’s absolutely right. It is just a different way of going about it. It is worth having the conversation with those who see, understand and care about the issues.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

Let’s talk about the plant in Missoula. Tell us about the first “zero waste” bio-refinery in the United States

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

Sure. Currently in Missoula we have eight employees. We are going to scale it to twelve in the next few months. At full capacity it will be an approximate twenty-five person refinery. We currently produce seventy-two tons of material, of fine chemicals per year. We have a hundred and twenty thousand liters of tank capacity per month.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

And what impact does that have locally what is your local footprint?

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue MarbleBiomaterials

It’s a very small refinery. Our building is maybe eight thousand to ten thousand square feet total. It is like a small brewery. I mean, literally, if you were to walk in, it looks like a chemical refinery in a brewery. Very much like a hybrid of both. You walk in and go, “Well those are beer tanks but I don’t know what the heck that big thing is; who is guessing a molecular distillation unit?”

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

When people think of refineries – and this is the exciting part of what you are doing – people automatically think of the chemical or the petroleum refineries. And you are taking that – that is another thing you are eliminating, in this whole process – is that entire poor environmental footprint that those petroleum refineries leave behind.

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

That’s right. We are playing in the world of biological code, right? It is genes that are being expressed that produce these chemicals when we run these reactors together. It is almost like there is an assembly line for the twenty-first century; bacteria coming together and making molecules that they could not make on their own but they can make together. It’s interesting stuff.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

You refine the chemical here in Missoula – and where does that product go?

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

That’s a great question. We do most of the polishing here in Missoula. Think of it this way: in the chemical market, purity is a very big deal, especially if it is going to go into food; it has to be very pure. Our product has a very high level of purity, as it is a priority for us.

We do most of the polishing here, and currently send off the rest to get final polishing. Think of it as we upgrade to about ninety percent purity here, and then we send it off for the final ten percent. The final ten percent – or the final nine point nine percent – is very, very hard to get to.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

Then is that final product – I would assume that is sold to the manufacturers of the foodstuff or the fragrance maker, or whoever.

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

That’s correct, yes. Then it goes to  flavoring houses, cosmetics manufacturers or to distributors.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

Why Missoula? Why did you pick Missoula to launch this plant?

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

Number one – and this is important – the regulatory environment here was much easier to navigate than where we came from –  that means permits; air and water permits, distillers’ permits, the regulations around opening a refinery like ours were much easier to get off the ground in Montana.

Why does it matter? It matters because when you are a small company and you have operations for commercial operations, every month you don’t have revenues, it might come in as a reduction in your net wealth in your bank account. Speed to market was a big consideration for us.

Number two, the tax environment is such that it is beneficial to us; there is no sales tax.

Number three, the quality of life is just really high. I mean, it is simply beautiful; it’s a nice place to live. The university system is also great, so there’s just amazing access to intellectual capital -smart people. It just made a lot of sense.

And then I think the final point I want to make here is access to the Government; the Governor’s office, your US Senators and Congressman – they have been fantastic to us. I can’t even begin to tell you how friendly they are, how accessible they are, and how many connections they have made for us.

Jeff Mangan, mtbusiness.com

Good to hear. Yes, we like our Senators, Congressman, and Governor. It’s a nice part about Montana; you can give them a call and you can likely get them on the phone.

Kelly Ogilvie, Blue Marble Biomaterials

As a matter of fact we have their staff in our offices as we speak. I mean, that’s the kind of relationship we have – we have Senators coming by our facilities, hang out and look at the facility. They’ve been there before, get an update, see what is going on, what we may need. That makes a difference, it really does.

Find Blue Marble Biomaterials on the web, on facebook and twitter @bluemarblebio

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Since 2005, mtbusiness.com had served as Montana’s premier business news and resource portal. Passionate about #mtbiz, Jeff Mangan is the Managing Partner at Fatmoose Media, LP and the founder of mtbusiness.com, your resource for Montana small business and entrepreneurs.  Muchsuccess!