A.I.M. Interview: Sapphire Energy’s Bryn Davis
by David Schwartz (Algae Industry Magazine) In January of this year, after six months of plummeting oil prices, Sapphire Energy CEO James E. Levine announced that the company – with eight years and $300+ million of investment into drop-in algal biofuels – “is moving forward with its vision of commercializing its technology through several end markets.” The new near-term focus became applying its renewable algae-based technology to address a growing need for reliable sources of human nutraceuticals, animal/aquaculture feed, and more.
Sapphire’s technology platform – using non-potable water and non-arable land to grow algae that captures CO2 in open ponds – repositioned for “a new agricultural revolution.” This algae biomass “is a sustainable, renewable, and scalable source of high value omega-3 oils, high value aquaculture and animal feed ingredients and renewable fuels,” said the company’s press release.
Bryn Davis has “run the floor” at Sapphire Energy, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, since its early days when the race was exclusively toward drop-in algal biofuels.
I had been chair of MVEDA (the local economic development commission in Las Cruces) and actually worked closely to encourage Sapphire to setup their research operations in New Mexico. As was fate, I had just finished my chairmanship and had made arrangements to depart my other job at Las Cruces Machine. I was taking some time off and was tiling my house when Mike Menendez literally showed up at my door and said, “We’d like you to come talk to us because we need to set up this operation and you are very knowledgeable in New Mexico about how to get things done and built.”
Had you known Mike prior to that?
Only from the recruiting activities to encourage Sapphire to come to New Mexico, though Mike is from New Mexico and turns out I am some kind of relative of his. So I went to San Diego, where the beginnings of Sapphire were downstairs in a corner lab with three offices and two lab benches. It was quite small.
I met with some of the founders and talked about what they wanted to do and had lunch with (then CEO) Jason Pyle. Jason and I talked about what it would take to build a facility, what issues there would be, and he said, “Why don’t you come work for us?” I was intrigued with the process and totally on board with the commitment of all their players who were completely bought in to the concept, and who wanted to change the world by solving a big problem.
This was in 2008 and I was in the first group of folks who made up the original New Mexico operation. Sapphire’s address at the time was typically my house. It’s kind of funny because every now and then someone shows up at my house, thinking it’s the Sapphire offices. We actually built one of the early prototype ponds in my front yard – just kind of a conceptual layout of what we wanted to do.
The decision was to come some place, oddly enough remote from water, because there were so many unknowns and you wanted to be somewhere that, if you had a discharge or problem, you weren’t doing it in some river structure, you weren’t doing it in the bay. You really wanted to be a bit isolated. And then you wanted to be where there was a lot of sunlight. This was always intended as an R&D location. Even our Columbus (New Mexico) facility was really oriented around a commercial demonstration facility, not the end game for places where you could do those things securely and safely. So it was risk mitigation, as well as a conscientious cost use choice.
There are still issues of contamination that persist to this day that are certainly a nuisance for us, but you need to live in the world and if you live in a bubble you will go out of business. And in the world it’s going to rain, dust is going to blow.
And if we see something going wrong in the pond in the morning…if we don’t do something by lunch time, it’s going to be dead by the end of the day. That’s the algae business. The beauty of algae is the rapid growth, rapid production. It’s a bit like the stock market, though – things can go up fast and down fast. A lot of our on-site skill set is to be able to account for that, and to forecast problems.
I think in the long haul, there will be an energy market for algae, we just don’t know when. It’s certainly not in the foreseeable investible future to do that, so you have to look at what products can come out of this platform that hold the most opportunity.
Like the algae, we have to adapt and move on, but all the hard earned knowledge is still valuable. As an industry we have to be economically viable, both from an operating standpoint, from an investor standpoint, and from a government regulatory standpoint.
In order to get oil, or get omega-3, or animal feed or whatever you want to do, you still have to grow the algae. You still have to have a platform to get to this biomass. That whole front-end process really doesn’t change, with the exception that we may pick different strains with key characteristics. READ MORE