One of the hottest biotech companies around the globe sits unassumingly on 30 acres at the back of a dead-end street off Alico Road. While locals may know little about the advanced science taking place behind the walls of Algenol, the Bioenergy Industry is taking notice. In November, Algenol was named No. 3 on Biofuels Digest’s “50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy” for 2014-15, the top American company to make the list. One month later, PLATTS Global Energy awarded Algenol its top honor as a global leader in the Biofuel industry.
“I think we are the most successful, completely unknown company in America,” says Algenol CEO and founder Paul Woods. By the end of 2015, however, Southwest Floridians may be pumping Algenol fuel into their vehicles. In January, the company became the first to receive approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to use its patented algae “bug” commercially, with the only approved pathway for turning algae into ethanol. “We conclusively proved our algae were safe, even if we had a hurricane and 100 percent of them were released into the environment,” Woods adds. Algenol’s success has been years in the making.
Woods invented the technology as a genetics student at the University of Western Ontario in 1984. “I just had an epiphany,” says the soon-to-be- 53-year-old entrepreneur. “I invent all kinds of things. I thought it was a really novel way to make fuel.” However, novelty biofuel wasn’t salable at the time, and Woods temporarily shelved the idea, spending his early career in traditional energy, building two natural gas distribution companies.
“I tried to do the algae, but it was a miserable failure because no one gave a crap about low-cost fuels or fresh water or climate change,” says the ever-candid Woods, dressed comfortably in jeans and a polo shirt. While everyday dress at Algenol is casual, there’s nothing lackadaisical about the company’s aggressive business model. Algenol is in rapid expansion mode, hitting major milestones on its course to commercial production and globalization.
“This is going to be a huge and challenging year for Algenol,” says Woods, who was so busy in December he had to send Senior Vice President Jacques Beaudry- Losique to accept the illustrious PLATTS Award on Algenol’s behalf. “All kinds of craziness is going to happen this year. Our business is definitely changing.” Timing is now ripe for Algenol, which promises a massive reduction in the carbon footprint for fuel production by using readily available saltwater, carbon dioxide and algae, baked by the rays of the sun, to produce ethanol, gasoline, jet and diesel fuels.
“We’ve spent the last eight years trying to do research and then development, really getting ready to see if you could do commercialization of this,” explains Woods. “This is the year we are truly trying to be a commercial business.” Woods will be the first to fill up his fl ex-fuel Suburban with algae-based fuel. With production costs of about $1.30 per gallon, Algenol fuel should always be cheaper at the pump than petroleum-based fuels, he says.
Woods has set an aggressive production goal of 100 million gallons by 2016. The company is in the process of acquiring 12,000 acres of land near two major Florida power plants, having engineered a method to harvest carbon dioxide before it is released into the atmosphere. It’s a win for Algenol – which will purchase the gas at a rate of $1 per ton – and for the utility, which will drastically lower its carbon emissions while passing savings onto its customers from the Algenol payout.
With the Obama Administration now placing priority on reducing our nation’s carbon footprint and Big Oil starting to acknowledge its role in climate change, Algenol is well poised in the Bioenergy market, despite the competition of low oil prices. Woods estimates it would cost American companies a collective $65 billion to collect carbon dioxide from all stationary sources in the nation, should the EPA require it. “I wonder how the debate will change,” muses Woods, who says Algenol has been contacted by 900 utility companies, all eager to transform their carbon emissions from a liability into an asset.
To aid in Algenol’s commercialization, the company has brought on Timothy Zenk, former senior vice president of corporate development for Sapphire Energy, as well as newly hired executives, engineers and scientists from top companies like Synthetic Genomics, Alstrom, Amgen and Boston Scientific. “I consider this to be the highest tech business in the state,” Woods says. When Algenol started eight years ago, there were 100 registered algae companies attempting to produce ethanol. Now there are just two, and Algenol is the only one with an EPA-approved pathway, validating the company’s suite of fuels meets Greenhouse Gas reduction requirements for advanced biofuels. “At Algenol, we’ve had a lot of smart people working on this for a long time,” Woods says. “If you don’t have enough smart people, and you don’t have enough money, you can’t make it across the goal line.”
Before starting up Algenol with cofounder Ed Legere in 2006, Woods had retired young, at age 38, as a multimillionaire after selling his energy companies. Algenol also continues to receive financial backing from the Alejandro Gonzalez family of Mexico City – a major investor in technology, energy and industrial companies worldwide – and Reliance Industries of India. Algenol is estimating a $1.3 billion investment in its soon- to-be-built Florida production facilities and may expand to other states and countries, with a corporate presence in Switzerland, Germany, India, and Mexico.
It’s ironic the man behind this American economic engine is a Canadian national. As his company achieves milestones on its road to commercial biofuel production, Woods celebrated a personal milestone late last year. He received his Green Card in December, achieving permanent residency after working on visas for eight years. Thankfully, he had more luck in expediting things at the EPA than he did with the U.S. Immigration Service. Last year, when Algenol applied for pathway approval, it was 39th in the queue, behind companies which had been waiting for more than two years.
“I was invited to the White House, and I screamed bloody murder,” says Woods, who took the issue up with Counselor to the President John Podesta, head of U.S. climate initiatives. In less than five months, Algenol had been moved to the top of the priority list and given EPA approval.
“I think what we do is special,” Woods says, and apparently the U.S. government agrees. “It’s going to be a big challenge. I hope to God we can make it. Everything we do has never been done before.”