A Publication of
The University of Montana
UM spin-off company offers major
economic development potential
Geographers study return migration
to rural towns
Predators and Plants
Studies reveal how meat eaters
Applying game theory to real-world
problems such as credit card debt
View is published twice a year by the offices of the Vice President for
Research and Development and University Relations at The University of
Montana. Send questions, comments or suggestions to Cary Shimek, managing editor, 330 Brantly Hall, Missoula, MT 59812,
or call 406-243-5914. Contributing editors and writers are Jacob Baynham, Brianne Burrowes, Brenda
Day, Rita Munzenrider, Jennifer Sauer and Ashley Zuelke. The photographer is Todd Goodrich. Web design is by Shimek.
For more information about UM research, call Judy Fredenberg in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Development
UM spin-off company offers major economic development potential
Don Kiely, a retired professor emeritus of chemistry at The University of Montana, comes across as fairly unassuming at first glance. Six feet tall. Slim. Seventy-one years old. White hair. He and wife Judy, also a chemist, share a bathroom with a periodic table shower curtain.
But unassuming or not, Kiely dreams big.
For 11 years he directed UM’s Shafizadeh Rocky Mountain Center for Wood and Carbohydrate Chemistry, a lab dedicated to unraveling the secrets of carbohydrates and finding practical applications for their use. He earned three patents during his UM tenure, with three more pending. (He added those to eight patents already garnered earlier in his 41-year academic career.)
Kiely had the breakthroughs, but private businesses didn’t exactly line up to work with the University to license and use what he had invented. So two years ago he decided if his life’s work was going to have any chance of being commercialized, he would have to start his own chemical company — one that would encompass the full range of technologies and products he envisioned.
The result was Rivertop Renewables, a UM spin-off company incorporated in January 2008. The firm received state Board of Regents’ approval to license the intellectual properties created by Kiely, his students and his lab techs, and if the company becomes successful, both UM and the inventors could see some compensation.
Of course, that’s a big “if” at this point.
“This is either going to get big or fail,” Kiely says. “That’s the truth. You see so much hype from companies, and I can’t operate that way. But we have some good science to back us up, and science doesn’t operate on hype.”
|Rivertop Renewables’ key players: (left to right) Mike Kadas, operations director; Don Kiely, founder; Jason Kiely, marketing and operations; Jere Kolstad, CEO.
Rivertop Renewables currently is housed across the Clark Fork River from campus in the Montana Technology Enterprise Center (MonTEC), a UM-affiliated business incubator. The fledgling company has eight employees, two labs and a lofty goal: to retool the chemical industry.
Jere Kolstad, company CEO and president, says they are building a renewable chemical company, meaning the products they produce are made from plant carbohydrates, or sugars, and are environmentally benign.
“We use plant carbohydrates to make our products instead of hydrocarbons,” Kolstad says. “Right now the world uses between 7 and 15 percent of all oil and gas to create nearly all the chemicals we use out there. And of course these things are going into the environment and creating some problems.
“People are always talking about high fuel prices, but the petrochemicals we use have an even higher value,” he says. “It’s only a matter of time before there are limited supplies, disruptions or things just get too expensive. So there is this whole industry that needs to be reinvented that nobody’s talking about. And you can’t do this with sun, wind or hydrogen — it’s going to have to come from plants.”
Kiely says the mass of any plant is about 75 percent carbohydrates. So the trick is to take this biomass — everything from weeds to oak trees — and turn it into products people can use. He says Rivertop Renewables generally uses an agricultural commodity such as corn to make its products.
Kiely says their company makes basic chemical building blocks that can in turn be used to make other chemicals and products. An overriding company goal is to replace many petrochemicals now being used with carbohydrate-based chemicals that don’t pollute.
He says the company is developing a wide range of products. One example is building materials, such as additives to concrete that increase its strength and workability. The company also creates corrosion inhibitors that could be used in water heating and cooling systems.
“If water is used for heating and cooling a building, for example, you don’t want microbes to grow and you don’t want the pipes to rust,” Kiely says. “But you also can’t use the water forever. You have to throw it out. The chemicals we offer for this are environmentally benign, and more than a few being used out there now are not.”
Another big market would be adding their corrosion inhibitor chemicals to road salt during the winter. Kiely says some of the current anticorrosive agents “are really ugly, yucky things” that cause environmental harm.
Yet another application would be in the world of agricultural fertilizers. Jason Kiely, the Rivertop Renewables director of marketing (and Don’s son), says the company has a polymer that absorbs water. It’s not unlike the powder in disposable diapers that gels when moisture hits it, but this chemical is biodegradable (unlike the one in diapers).
Jason says the best application of their gel may be a cost-effective time-release fertilizer.
“With a typical fertilizer, if you put it out and it rains, it can run off,” he says. “Our gel will hold fertilizer until it biodegrades in the elements over time. This will release it more slowly.
“We are in the early stage of developing this product,” Jason says, “but obviously such an agricultural hydrogel could involve some very large-scale applications.”
“And there is an added benefit,” Don Kiely says. “When the gel polymer breaks down, it serves as a nitrogen fertilizer itself.”
Yet another business avenue Rivertop Renewables may explore is becoming the low-cost, large-scale producer of a nutraceutical found by some studies to have cancer-preventing properties.
“It comes in a tablet form that could be sold in supermarkets worldwide,” Don Kiely says. “Right now we have a good lead on this one, as nobody is able to produce this domestically on a large scale. But we can, and we would.”
The chemist says a strength of Rivertop Renewables is the diversity of technology and products it can produce. “As you can see, we are not just a single-product entity hoping for that one magic bullet,” he says. “In addition to selling industrial products in large volumes, we can sell a variety of renewable carbohydrate chemicals to the chemical industry and researchers. Our expertise allows us to set up a whole library of those.”
Kolstad says the company is one big production deal and patent submission away from firing up a chemical production facility. He said investors are in place, and members of the company’s board include people such as the former CEO of a $1.2 billion chemical company.
If Rivertop Renewables takes off, the founders envision having three manufacturing facilities, with two of those in Montana. Because of market and technical logistics, some of the manufacturing will need to be done out of state, but the idea is to keep the higher-end jobs such as product development and marketing and sales in Big Sky Country.
“A lot has to go right,” Kolstad says, “but I don’t think it’s hard to see a time when 100 people are affected by this company in the not-too-distant future. The markets we are entering are big.”
He says the engineers who have looked at their production facility design were struck by the elegance and simplicity of what Kiely’s team had created — a plant that uses the tenets of “green chemistry” and avoids toxic releases into the environment.
“I constantly indoctrinated my graduate students and technicians about trying to think about applying chemistry on a large scale,” Kiely says. “If you produce something in a lab using complicated methods, it often becomes nothing more than an intellectual exercise. To do things commercially, it has to be clean, fast, low-energy and safe. That’s a big intellectual leap.”
He says three of the experienced chemists working for the new company already helped him develop new technologies at UM.
Kiely says many of his breakthroughs in the lab came from trying to create cheaper source materials for the polymers he concocted. The building-block chemicals he had used were too expensive to make the products commercially viable. Eventually he realized the real innovation was not the large-molecule polymers he had created, but building blocks he made them with.
“This whole company is based on the idea of making basic source materials,” he says.
Kolstad, a Glasgow native, worked at a large Seattle accounting firm for many years, serving as an audit manager for corporations such as Microsoft and Safeco. He had an opportunity to join Microsoft in the early years, “and I always said if I ever ran into something really big again, I wouldn’t walk away from it.
“That’s why I’m back in Montana,” he says. “I’m not aware of another Montana company with this kind of potential. It’s not often you get a shot like this.”
— By Cary Shimek
Tyler Smith, director of research and development for Rivertop Renewables, works with a rotary evaporator.