Green Tech Watch: Blue Marble Energy

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Kelly Ogilvie and James Stephens share an ambitious, no-excuses vision for sustainable business and clean energy. In 2005, the two entrepreneurs -- who met via a Craigslist post -- co-founded Blue Marble Energy with a single mission: displace petroleum with bio-replacements everywhere - in our energy, in our food, and in the products we buy.

As Ogilvie sees it, business may be the fastest and most effective route to achieving a clean-tech future. "Our climate won't wait for our economy to turn around. There needs to be investment in sustainable technologies now."

Sustainability starts with a sustainable business model
Blue Marble Energy (BME) isn't your average biofuel company. BME does convert algae biomass to renewable energy, but it's their unique strategy that sets them up for success. While many waste-to-energy companies are struggling to create a sustainable business model, BME realized that it needed to take a different approach if it was going to succeed financially. Looking into examples of other successful companies, the founders discovered -- with some irony -- that a model commonly used by oil companies could be applied to the biofuel business.

When oil companies process crude oil into outputs, they produce valuable, high-margin chemicals as well. BME looked at all the outputs they could get when the algae broke down and found more valuable products than just the biofuel. In addition to bio-methane, BME produces high-margin biochemicals that go into such products as cosmetics, plastics and foods. By using would-be waste products to produce valuable outputs that can be used as nutrients in other industries, BME trims its own waste and disposal costs and increases profits, creating a sustainable business model.

Turning waste streams into sustainable systems
Currently, BME gets its feedstock from areas where large concentrations of algae have accumulated into algae blooms. These typically occur where wastewater streams enter our waterways, carrying chemicals like phosphorous, which leads to algae overgrowth. Organizations like the Department of Ecology contact BME to conduct remediation efforts, since aggressive algae blooms can choke out other life around them.

However, BME would like to prevent these damaging algae blooms from occurring in the first place, and is working with counties in the Puget Sound area on a pilot program to do just that. The program would enable BME to grow native, non-genetically modified algae at the immediate place where wastewater streams enter waterways. The algae would act as a filter, taking harmful chemicals out of the wastewater before it reaches the natural waterway. Ogilvie hopes that, as other measures are taken to prevent these wastewater-contaminated streams from entering waterways, BME can take their process even further upstream to wastewater treatment plants.

So many opportunities for improvement
BME isn't stopping at energy and biochemicals. In line with the company's mission to displace petroleum products with bio-replacements, BME is pioneering new products like bioasphalt. Take the petroleum-based chemicals like polycyclic hydrocarbons out of asphalt, replace them with biochemicals, and you get bioasphalt. The main benefit: when water runs off this non-toxic material, it picks up fewer harmful chemicals on its way to storm systems that flow into streams, lakes, and oceans. Plans for a local bioasphalt pilot are underway.

A green future
Economically viable, environmentally friendly companies are one keystone of a sustainable future. Ogilvie believes that strong leadership from both government and the venture capital community is critical to facilitating this shift. Government and venture capitalists can serve as thought leaders and help shape new business models. Collaboration, rather than competition, is also key. Businesses need to work together to solve the problems in our environment. Rather than compete with existing sustainability-focused companies, new companies should work on un-addressed issues and become leaders in new areas.

When asked what he liked about starting a green tech company in Seattle, Ogilvie said that he and Stephens thrive in the Northwest. They find that the people in the Puget Sound region have a progressive mindset that is conducive to alternative business models and more sustainable ways of living. I look forward to hearing more from these two as their pilot programs become a Seattle reality.

Worldchanging Seattle's Serena Batten will be covering emerging local leaders in clean tech in her series, "Green Tech Watch." Serena has worked in Seattle's technology and finance industries for more than ten years, and is currently pursuing her MBA in technology management at the University of Washington.

Image: "Calumet Algae Bloom" by flickr/liz noise, CC license.


How does your business model handle product testing? I'm thinking the infrastructure to test a wide array such as jet fuel, cosmetics, bioasphalt would be overwhelming for a relatively small company such as BME? Does Boeing support any testing either directly or indirectly?

Posted by: Gary Arvan on February 2, 2009 9:12 PM

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