Cleaner and Greener
The University’s most successful spinoff
company lands $26 million investment
A year after graduating from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Patrick Memoli can say without shame that he is employed as a dishwasher. On a recent Thursday morning, he’s hard at work in the bowels of a building at the eastern edge of Missoula, loading dirty plates into the yawning mouths of 10 automatic dishwashing machines.
It’s quickly apparent, however, that Memoli isn’t your ordinary dishwasher. He’s wearing a smart white lab coat, safety glasses and purple latex gloves. He’s also dirtying the plates himself, smearing them with a goopy mixture of butter and milk powder before loading them into each dishwasher along with six clean glasses and a single aluminum disc. He sets the cycles, and then inspects and records the results, noting the cleanliness of the plates, the spotting of the glasses and the corrosion of the aluminum disc. Memoli clearly is more bench scientist than kitchen hand.
“Some of the guys call it hydro-ceramic chemistry,” he says with a smile.
Whatever it’s called, it’s a growth industry. Memoli’s employer, UM spinoff Rivertop Renewables, just landed a $26 million investment from First Green Partners, a venture capital firm, and Cargill, the largest privately held company in the country. The investment — the biggest in history for any UM-related business — is the reason Rivertop CEO Mike Knauf has a bottle of champagne sitting on his desk. It’s a congratulatory gift from a UM professor.
“It’s a big deal for anyone in our industry,” Knauf says of the money. Venture capital, he explains, tends to be wary of the green sector. Knauf received at least 20 rejections from venture capitalists before First Green Partners and Cargill announced their investment. With the money, Rivertop will double its workforce from 20 to 40 employees, open a pilot facility in Missoula and develop a large-scale production facility in Virginia. But what could get a venture capital firm and a giant agricultural company excited about a little startup in Missoula?
The answer is a chemical called glucaric acid, which Rivertop derives from corn syrup by way of a unique, highly efficient process developed and patented by UM chemistry Professor Emeritus Don Kiely. Glucaric acid is cheaply produced and completely biodegradable. It also does a number on dirty dishes. Large chemical companies have been searching for a viable alternative to phosphates after they were banned in several states for the risk they pose to waterways. Knauf thinks glucaric acid is the alternative that the industry has been looking for, and he aims to take Rivertop into the dishwashing sector by selling the chemical to larger companies to use as a builder in detergents.
“We’re putting a novel chemical into their toolbox that they can innovate around,” he says. “We’re creating value through innovation.”
Rivertop Vice President for Research and Development Tyler Smith thrives on that sense of innovation. Ten years ago, Smith was a grad student in Austin, Texas, doing drudge work in pharmaceutical labs. He was growing bored with chemistry. “I don’t like measuring stuff so much,” he says. “I like making stuff.”
On a cross-country trip, he happened to stop by UM and took a look at the chemistry program. He saw professors exploring exciting new areas of sustainable chemistry with real-world applications, from biodegradable plastics to removing heavy metals from rivers. Chief among them was Don Kiely. “He was an absent-minded professor,” Smith recalls. “He wanted to create something new and change the world by doing it.” Sufficiently enthralled, Smith entered UM’s Ph.D. program and worked in Kiely’s lab. Eventually he and a handful of other people helped Kiely spin the process into a business.
A decade later, Smith is encouraged by Rivertop’s momentum. The $26 million will enable the company to produce 10 million pounds of product in a year. So far, glucaric acid has two major applications: dishwashing detergent and corrosion reduction. Rivertop has supplied the Montana Department of Transportation for three years with a renewable product added to the salt brine they spray on roadways to keep them ice-free in winter. Salt water can quickly corrode bridge railings, cars and guardrails, but a little of the company’s Headwaters corrosion inhibitor mixed in reduces corrosion by 75 percent. Rivertop supplied the state with enough of the chemical to treat 4.5 million gallons of salt brine this winter alone. What’s more, it’s completely safe.
“There aren’t a lot of chemicals you can go out and spray on roads and feel good about it,” Smith says.
But the golden goose for Rivertop is glucaric acid’s applications to dishwashing. Technicians like Memoli are busily accumulating data that supports the efficacy of glucaric acid against ingredients in leading brands of detergents. Rivertop’s recent financial windfall is, in part, validation for the gleaming glasses and clean plates coming out of their test kitchen. The 10 dishwashers, which include five high-end Whirpools and five cheap “landlord-specials,” each are plumbed to a tank of water that is twice as hard as Missoula’s groundwater. The idea is to simulate the toughest dishwashing conditions. Memoli and other technicians compare glucaric acid to leading brands of detergent — everything from Cascade Platinum (the BMW of dishwashing detergents), to more eco-branded detergents like Seventh Generation.
Smith points out the results in a darkened closet where glasses sit upturned on a light box. White spots and a blue-grey film are evident in almost all of them. But the glasses that have gone through a dishwasher loaded with glucaric acid are crystal clear. Rivertop plans to take these results to detergent manufacturers to show them that a renewable, biodegradable chemical made from corn syrup can get dishes cleaner, and greener, than anything else.
For Joe Fanguy, director of technology transfer at UM, Rivertop’s success is emblematic of the way federal research can lead to inventions, which can lead to new businesses and jobs for the community.
“I think it’s our first potential big win,” he says. “It’s quite an encouraging story. It has broad, long-term implications for the community and the University.”
In the past few years, Fanguy says he’s seen more and more people come into his office with actionable business ideas. There’s a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship on campus, he says, that is boosted by the growth of companies like Rivertop.
“I think the tide is starting to change,” he says. “People like Don Kiely should get a lot of credit for sticking their neck out and trying something.”
Thanks to Kiely’s leap of faith, and some support from UM, Missoula now has a burgeoning business that is employing Montana University System graduates — people like Patrick Memoli, who is one of the most highly qualified dishwashers in town.
— By Jacob Baynham