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Biomass Business Chemicals

A Rivertop runs through it; building a bio-business in Montana.

Rivertop_SacksMontana’s state motto is Oro y Plata (Spanish for gold and silver) and the mountains of the US State once yielded fortunes for prospectors. Today however, a trip to Missoula in the northwest of the state will find men and women developing a different treasure revolutionary bio-based chemistry, for it is the home of Rivertop Renewables. As the latest Bio-Based World News headliner our Editor Luke Upton takes a look at the company history, speaks to CEO Mike Knauf and enjoys a particular focus on their unique company persona and what being based in Missoula means for the team.


The Rivertop story begins in 1968 when
Dr. Donald E. Kiely began research to explore the creation of sophisticated, biodegradable polymers derived from glucaric acid. His work took him to University of Montana, Dr. Kiely and his research group methodically conducted hundreds of experiments on making the process more commercial and scalable. Ultimately, the Kiely group developed a platform technology to enable the production of a family of biodegradable chemicals from plant sugars that could compete on both price and performance. From this work, the core intellectual property behind Rivertop Renewables was born.

The company was founded in early 2008 in Missoula, Montana, where the corporate headquarters is located. The team at Rivertop has now developed a way to make glucaric acid, glucarates and other biodegradable chemicals from renewable resources in abundant quantity and at a low cost.

Mike-Knauf-PictureMike Knauf, the CEO of Rivertop Renewables () is a 30+ year bio-industrial veteran, having held executive level positions with leading providers Genencor, Lallemand and Codexis before heading to Montana. An engaging interviewee Mike speaks open of the business scars he has from his career in the bio industry and I asked why these particular products were being focussed upon: The functionalities of glucaric acid offer a host of different opportunities from detergent builders for automatic dishwashing formulations to corrosion inhibitors in road de-icing products. These are big markets and we are able to offer cost-effective and renewable solutions in these areas.

And these markets are of such a scale that Rivertop Renewables is scaling up. In December 2014, they began construction of their first commercial plant in Virginia in partnership with Dan Chem Technologies (DTI). The plant came online in October of this year and at full capacity, the plant will produce up to 10 million pounds of product per year.

Partnering with DTI for contract manufacturing both lowers the cost and speeds time-to-market for our novel performance chemicals. The volumes produced will enable us to not only meet the needs of our existing customers, but also enable us to unlock new markets with ample supply for testing and co-development with partners, said Mike of the their work with DTI in Virginia.

640px-Missoula_Sunset_2006-07

The plant might be in Virginia (Mike explained to me that by working with DTI they were able to work with existing technologies and equipment and it would as a result cost them half as much as it would to build elsewhere) but the heart of the company is firmly placed in the home of its HQ Missoula (pictured above). And this fact cannot be lost to anyone to visits their website where alongside details about the company, its products and senior management team it also has a link to its Around the Bend blog.

Now this isnt any normal company blog page, updated a few times a year with some bland corporate news. No, this is a rich and detailed sub-site that for the reader really brings the company and more importantly its staff to life. Just a quick glance at it and I learn that their new Manager of Analytical Chemistry met U.S. President Gerald Ford as a baby, that Montana is a making a concerted effort to recruit (and keep) more women in STEM careers and that Lake Missoula Tea Company is THE place to take tea when in Missoula.

As someone who spends a lot of time on the websites on businesses in the bio-economy, I genuinely enjoyed seeing the culture and character of Rivertop laid out to the public. I asked Mike if this was something that had been planned: While not exactly planned, yes it is something we do push. We are proud of the culture here, and think we are a unique being based where we are and we like to showcase this to the world.

And for us recruitment is very important. Where we are located means that most people will have to move from somewhere else so making not just the job, but the team and location attractive is important. I myself moved here from California so have been through this. We have a low staff turnover, I think of the two most recent departures, one went to law school, the other going home to take over a family business. And I think that people, in particular millennials are looking from more their careers.

rivertop-renewablesWeve hired people from across the USA who are amazed at their ability to work at a global company all while living and exploring the great outdoors in Montana. Our industry will always have a societal and environmental focus because of the core of our work anyway. And I like to think that Rivertop Renewables offers employees a great culture and also a fantastic quality of life here in Missoula.

2015 has been, in the words of Mike a breakthrough year for Rivertop Renewables, with the cutting of the ribbon on their first contract manufacturing facility for commercial production in Virginia. This represents a major step forward for the company, following years of hard work begun in the labs of University of Montana by Dr. Kiely. And although Rivertop is now becoming an international name in our business, they will always have their heart in Missoula and a focus on the quality of life and culture for their employees. And yes, Dr. Kiely is still a part of the team.

For more on Rivertop Renewables visit: www.rivertop.com

Thanks to Jaime Quick for his assistance with this article.

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If you liked reading about bio-business in Montana you may also be interested in our other Bio-Based World News Headliners …

The Amyris story: veterans of a new industry.

Verdezyne bringing the future into focus.

Gevos fresh start ensures a bright future for bio-based Isobutanol.

Dr. Molly Morse, CEO & Co-Founder, Mango Materials.

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