Why a $300M renewable energy firm started with food flavouring

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An Ottawa biofuel ‘orphan’ worth watching

The numbers go like this: A profitable Ottawa technology company a little more than 20 years old licensed its technology for a single application for $100 million in 2005. Earlier this month, the firm received a $20-million investment that values the company at $300 million. Its technology is embedded in solutions worldwide, and it is really just getting started.

Ensyn's Renfrew facility.

By Marc McArthur

 

One would be forgiven for mistaking this company for any number of high-tech firms from Silicon Valley North’s heyday that achieved similar massive valuations, early profitability, global sales and strategic partnerships from within Ottawa’s business community.

But this is not a software or telecom company from the early 2000s. It’s Ensyn, a clean-tech company that’s achieving great success in a sector that’s notoriously challenging for startups. Ensyn’s journey reveals several important lessons for how a renewable energy company – or any company – can successfully grow with the right strategic approach.

At their core, clean-tech companies possess technologies that allow us to do more with less or to clean up after ourselves, typically on an industrial scale. Ensyn’s core intellectual property is its rapid thermal processing technology, which converts wood and other non-food biomass into renewable liquid fuels and chemicals.

So how did the company make this work? The first lesson in Ensyn’s story starts with great technology. The company’s founder and CEO, Robert Graham, is a world-renowned expert in fast thermal conversion, the foundation of Ensyn’s RTP technology.

The second lesson is not allowing the pursuit of a beautiful or noble outcome to get in the way of the pursuit of the revenue needed to get there. When Mr. Graham founded the company in the mid-1980s, the conditions were not right for Ensyn to grow based on the production of renewable fuels. However, a technology that converted woody biomass to liquids efficiently and at scale was just what Wisconsin-based food products company Red Arrow needed to make its smoky food flavouring. Red Arrow provided the funding for the scaling-up and commercialization of Ensyn’s RTP technology in exchange for the exclusive rights for its use in food products.

Ensyn may not have been saving the world from an energy apocalypse, but this flexibility to respond to market needs in its early stages gave the company critical investment, an early reference customer and a demonstrated commercial track record for its core technology that it still leverages today.

The final lesson is recognizing one’s key strengths and leveraging partners with aligned interests to do what they do best to make the total solution – what customers pay for – a success. Ensyn did this through a strategic partnership with Honeywell UOP, a global leader in processing plants, technology and consulting services in the petrochemical industry. It was an ideal partner to get renewable transport fuels such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel into consumer’s tanks.

Ensyn continues to apply this strategy today. While most bioenergy companies deal at arm’s length with biomass producers, Ensyn has formed a joint venture with Brazil’s Fibria, the world’s largest pulp producer, leading to that firm’s $20-million investment in Ensyn earlier this month.

So what has it been like to do business in Ottawa? Mr. Graham and company president David Boulard both jokingly acknowledge that Ensyn is an “orphan” in Ottawa as there’s no major chemical, oil and gas or forestry activity in the region.

The initial attraction to the city was for federal funding support at the time through Natural Resources Canada’s ENFOR forest biomass program. That has long since disappeared, but Ensyn has continued to succeed, illustrating a key point about the local business environment.

“If you have good, economical technology, it can thrive here in Ottawa regardless of what sector it’s in,” says Mr. Graham.

Nearly three decades after starting Ensyn, Mr. Graham shows no signs of letting up – especially as whispers of “IPO” become more audible.

The company’s  name is Ensyn. Pay close attention.

Marc McArthur is president of Crosstaff Consulting Inc.

Organizations: Red Arrow, Natural Resources Canada, Crosstaff Consulting

Geographic location: Ottawa, Silicon Valley North, Brazil ENFOR forest

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