Around the Bend

What's going on at Rivertop Renewables


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Establishing the Future of Green Chemistry

Sustainability is a core tenet of our work here at Rivertop. Our science and processes create a sustainable supply of bio-based products that are economically and environmentally attractive to consumers and industry by unlocking the potential of plant sugars. In our activities, we fully adhere to the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry, guidelines widely accepted by the green chemistry industry as its core pillars. Yet these principles are less than 20 years old, and green chemistry is arguably still in its youth.

When the modern environmental movement began in the 1960s and 1970s, the focus was largely on protecting humans and the environment from harmful substances. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded in 1970 and promptly banned chemical pesticides (such as DDT), followed by a variety of activities aimed at stemming pollution and cleaning up toxins. It wasn’t really until the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 that the paradigm started shifting towards prevention, opening up opportunities for innovation in what was later to be known as the ‘green chemistry’ space.

That got the ball rolling: the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards were established in 1995, the Green Chemistry Institute in 1997 and Green Chemistry, Theory and Practice was published in 1998, containing the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

While the green chemistry industry has since expanded and made its mark in many facets, it has a long way to go. A vast majority of organic chemicals are still derived from petroleum. Chemistry, as a result, is largely perceived negatively, associated more regularly with pollution and DDT than with sustainability.

Green chemistry has the tools to change that perception: according to a recently released study by BBC Research, the green chemistry industry is expected to grow to a market of $85.6 billion by 2020, with future prospects as high as $1.5 trillion. Innovation and demand from consumers for ‘green’ products are establishing a bright future for the industry. Nonetheless, a recent Chemical Watch article points out that in order to solidify its foothold, green chemistry has to make its way into education as well.

We here at Rivertop commend the inroads the industry has already made and are proud to be a part of it. In our eyes, the first key pillar for the future of green chemistry is innovative, economically competitive products. The second key pillar is hands-on education. And the third is societal recognition. But if we execute well on the first two, the last one will be sure to follow. And on that note, back to work!

Rivertopians Take On Utah

Once the ski season comes to an end in Missoula, Rivertopians typically take the week of spring break to get out and enjoy the new spring weather with their kids. This year, four adventure-seeking Rivertopians—Jason Kiely, Patrick Memoli, Michael Rands and Jon Speare— packed up their families, loaded up their cars and took off for Utah. Their destination? Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to celebrate the real beginning of spring.

Both parks are great for families and experienced climbers alike. Arches, about a 10-hour drive from Missoula, is especially appealing with its unique rock formations resulting in distinctive hiking trails. We have evidence: above is a picture of Michael Rands’ son Tanner at Delicate Arch, one of Utah’s most iconic arches. Below are Jon Speare’s kids in the strange and colorful Goblin Valley State Park.

With so many National Parks in and around Montana there are countless options for taking advantage of weekends and the beautiful spring weather. It really is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise.

Sending Off an Honorary Rivertopian

Last week, Rivertop sent off Eric Black, a Bio-Products Commercial Manager at Cargill and beloved Rivertop Board Observer, in style. Eric’s role at Cargill has recently changed and, as a result, he we will no longer be attending board meetings and working with the Rivertop team. Over the course of his service as Board Observer, Eric has become an honorary Rivertop team member and we thought the best way to show our appreciation would be a truly Montana-appropriate gift: a bear hat.

Shortly after Eric began frequenting Missoula he saw a newscast featuring a black bear cub found in a local neighborhood tree. This led to many discussions about how Missoulians deal with living so close to nature, followed by a proper education in how to apply bear-spray (not like bug spray as Eric originally thought!).

Eric will certainly be sorely missed, but has promised to visit and go hiking with the Rivertop team, armed appropriately with bear spray and maybe even wearing his new hat!

The ‘Green’ Debate (?)

A recent Huffington Post blog post argues that, contrary to popular belief, consumers are in fact biased against ‘green’ products. This disposition, the author points out, is a result of the perception that most sustainable products come with higher costs and lower quality. The post concludes that companies with sustainable products should take the ‘green’ part of their product out of the limelight and should focus instead on the product itself.

The fact that the conversation is now about how to position sustainability instead of whether or not it is necessary, is a major step forward for the future of consumer goods. Further, it provides good all-around advice for businesses: ensuring performance and reducing cost should be key pillars when producing any product. We here at Rivertop couldn’t agree more.

We do take slight issue with the author’s conclusion: “Green products will have really succeeded when consumers are buying them without even knowing they choose the more sustainable option!”

Studies have shown that sustainability branding actually increases sales, making it a key and justifiable marketing tactic for the many companies that have successfully mastered the quality, cost and sustainability trifecta. More directly, all other things being equal, sustainability is a key differentiator for more and more consumers around the world.

Further, being green is usually a key strategic pillar of companies with sustainable products: it would be in many ways disingenuous to ask them to mask a key aspect of their mandate.

Rivertop Renewables is taking an “all of the above” strategy when it comes to cost, performance and sustainability. While we ensure that our products compete on quality and value, we won’t ever walk away from our commitment to sustainability. It’s what we’re founded on and it’s a reason our customers choose us. They know they can improve their products and meet the needs of their customers through sustainable, non-toxic and biodegradable chemicals that meet bottom-line metrics as well.

Governor Bullock Visits Rivertop

On February 18, Rivertop was honored to welcome Montana Governor Steve Bullock into our midst. Gov. Bullock unveiled the new Montana Business Navigator website, an online tool intended to streamline the process of starting a new business in Montana. As the Governor described it, the website is a “one-stop shop” to work through the various permitting, licensing and registration processes.

We were certainly thrilled that the Governor chose our offices as an appropriate forum for touting Montana’s potential for entrepreneurs and couldn’t agree more that the state is a great place for early stage companies. As our CEO Mike Knauf put it, “we have a superior quality of life here, with beautiful lakes and rivers, microbreweries and golf courses.”

And to top it all off, the Governor pointed out that Montana is thriving economically. We can boast a low unemployment rate, many new jobs added in 2015 and a government that is keeping to its budget. We here at Rivertop aren’t doing too shabbily ourselves, with 2015 officially a banner year in terms of production and sales.

As Mike pointed out, “CEOs kiss a lot of rings, but they don’t get a lot of governmental action.” We are grateful to Governor Bullock and his team for making that a different story in Montana. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to fly fish.

STEM Strikes Back

We were excited to stumble across a recent article in the Montanan highlighting the Montana STEMfest. The event took place in October of last year and was created to connect kids between the ages of 8 and 16 with experts and academics in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Our own Kelly Barton participated in the two-day virtual conference series, providing insights into her experience as a research scientist here at Rivertop.

Montana in the Classroom teamed up with the Missoula College Energy Technology Program to put on this event in order to engage students more on STEM topics. It looks like they were successful! As the Montanan reports, more than 50 classrooms participated in nine live sessions. Even more impressive is that another 2,000 students watched recordings ex post facto.

We reported on the conference briefly in a previous blogpost, but are grateful to the Montanan for putting the spotlight back on a great event. And we are of course excited that our investment in STEM continues to be recognized!

photo credit: The Montanan

Unwind from the Holidays!

The Rivertop pHun Committee has added another notch to their belt with their latest celebratory success. Rivertopians and their better halves were invited to celebrate the end of a productive year and the dawning of a new year filled with even greater goals and accomplishments. In lieu of the traditional formal holiday party in December, the Rivertop team spent last Saturday evening at the beautiful Loft of Missoula, recovering from holiday excitement.

The theme of the evening was ‘Unwind from the Holidays,’ a time to relax and recover after December craziness. Party-goers enjoyed appetizers from our friends at Market on Front, scrumptious desserts, refreshing libations and plenty of laughs. Not everyone was fully relaxed, however, with diehard Green Bay fans (notably Mike Knauf and his wife Pam) watching the Packers vs. Cardinals game on the big screen. Although the Packers weren’t quite able to pull it off this year, the evening was certainly a W for Rivertop.

Brian’s Rivertop Milestone

Today, we have another exciting milestone to share—and an exact one at that. Brian Furey, the Technical Manager of Regulatory Affairs and Consumer Products here at Rivertop, has been with us for more than 5 years. More accurately, Brian calculated that he has been with us for 5 years, 4 months and 11 days (at the time of the interview, of course; the data has been routinely updated since).

Brian’s attention to detail and exactness has been integral to our team. He steers the regulatory ship including securing new chemical registrations and green chemical labels, ensuring official recognition of our innovation and sustainability. He also works on the consumer products team developing new household dish and laundry formulations.

Not surprisingly, Brian’s favorite Rivertop celebration was when his and the Rivertop team’s hard work payed off: Rivertop’s grand party to celebrate our Series B funding. “We chartered a bus, drove to Salmon Lake and enjoyed a day of swimming, games, good and fun.”

When asked what piece of advice he would have given himself on his first day 5 years, 4 months and 11 days ago, Brian responded in seasoned start-up veteran form: “Embrace change and have fun going outside your comfort zone.”

Brian’s time with Rivertop has also had an (awesome) unintended consequence: “Three years ago, Rivertop sponsored me to take a Kauffman Institute entrepreneurial class held in Missoula. I was strongly encouraged by a coworker to take the class and I am happy that I did because I met my future wife!”

Congratulations, Brian. We are excited to see what another 5 years (or rather 5 years, 4 months and 11 days) will bring!

Periodic Table Fills Out

Detail-oriented chemists across the globe are resting easier now that the periodic table has a more rectangular shape, thanks to the addition of elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 filling in the bottom right corner (see above Before/After image).

With that behind us, why not move on to a new project — the periodic circle — of renewable chemicals.

Some may argue that, with uninspired Latin names like ununtrium (113), ununpentium (115) and, of course, ununseptium (117), the periodic table remains unfinished. Chemists still have the unenviable task of assigning more charismatic element names like Xenon and Lithium. Who will fill the role of older generations, that already weeded out horrible names like plumbum, the original name for lead?

Indeed, discovering, verifying and naming new elements are historic achievements. But once the parades and spontaneous street celebrations subside, we should move on to a new project.

Bigger than the gnomon in the corner of the period table, is the space in the middle of the chemical industry. Right now, the hydrocarbon-based chemical building blocks that are in some ways the foundation of manufacturing are giving way to a new crop of more sustainable alternatives.

After some closure on the periodic table let’s begin to fill that space in the chemical industry and help lay the foundation for a new age of renewable chemistry. We invite other renewable chemical companies to add to our building blocks.

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