By Geoffrey R. Morgan, Partner, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Americans should be keenly interested in alternative transportation fuel sources whether from a perspective of providing sustainable energy or preserving our national security (i.e., our being less dependant on foreign oil). Cellulosic ethanol offers the promise of solutions for these issues, but to date, the technology is not yet here: there is no commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol anywhere in the world. How can we perfect the technology and achieve commercial-scale biofuel? With President Obama's call last week for increased ethanol production, an excellent place to look for the spark to the movement would be within America's universities and research labs.
A tremendous amount of renewable energy-related technology is being developed by our universities and major research institutions in the United States. In many cases these technologies are available for licensing by interested parties, and in almost all cases, there is interest by the owners of the technology in having the technologies developed and used in commercial-scale operations. These developments include biomass technologies as well as advanced clean coal and other fossil fuel technologies that will help fossil fuel-powered plants and facilities burn more cleanly.
Many might be surprised about the quality of work that is out there. For example, New Mexico State University (in Las Cruces) is part of a consortium that was recently awarded $44 million to research the commercialization of biofuel from algae. The University of Tennessee Research Foundation recently partnered with Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol, LLC to construct a pilot-scale biorefinery for the research and development of cellulosic ethanol technologies. There are hundreds more such inventive projects in university labs, and their knowledge and expertise could be an asset and a useful tool in bringing parties together to jump start commercial-scale ethanol production.
We need to bring these innovative ideas to the attention of venture capitalists and other early-stage financing sources that have expertise and interest in these industries as for example, in the medical device arena, wherea number of firms regularly partner with technology owners and universities to invest in and exploit the ideas that developed in research labs. The same kind of academic and financing partnership is not the norm in the biomass arena (or in other areas of the renewable space).
Universities and other research institutions should develop a methodical approach to identifying venture capital and private equity sources on a nationwide basis that have expertise in the particular technologies and industries in which the technology is being developed. Those sources could provide the financing necessary to advance commercial-scale licensing. To be successful, I believe financing sources should be made aware of newly developed technologies regularly, perhaps as frequently as every few months, in order to get the ideas to market as efficiently and quickly as possible. Perhaps the universities could create a national database that could house project information and availability.
This may not be a perfect solution but could prove a major step forward.
Geoff Morgan is a partner in the firm's Business Practice Group and former chair of that group. He serves as lead corporate counsel to many significant corporate and technology-based clients, particularly in the renewable energy area