How EthosGen is turning grass into gold.
Jim Abrams, an eager 26-year-old with a philosophical bent, believes in grass. C4 grass, to be precise. His Dallas-based startup, EthosGen, has created an innovative way to grow and process C4 grass into fuel. A discovery which positions Pennsylvania right smack in the green corridor and at a new pinnacle of the biodiesel movement.
He got there, as he puts it, standing on the shoulders of giants. One includes his father, Bill Abrams, a former president of Lockheed Martin, bio-tinkerer, and a man able to make some phones ring. Another is Father Jack Ryan of King’s College’s McGowan School of Business. Others include chemical VPs and corporate CEOs. All local mentors that have taught him "not just how to make a living, but how to live."
But first, a bit about biomass. Biomass is the raw material–that C4 grass–that is converted into fuel, electricity, hydrogen, green fiber and chemicals. Yet so far, the green movement’s efforts to grow plants or grasses on farms or marginally cultivable land has resulted in an undesirable rise in crop prices and ignited a food-versus-fuel controversy. EthosGen, in a brilliant departure, is the only commercial operation to propose indoor Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) , or greenhouses, to grow the covetable biomass practically on command. Meaning EthosGen can grow fuel independent of climate, soil conditions, weather fluctuations, transportation, politics or any other conditions that generally flummox biomass production worldwide. In the simplest terms, EthosGen brings the farm to you, wherever you need it.
A 2005 graduate of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA ("the best education in the world," gushes Abrams), and armed with a dual economics and history degree, Abrams did what most new graduates do: he left town. But after a few years as an unhappy paint salesman, he returned to Northeastern PA ripe for a new adventure, one truer to his training at King’s, a school he says "formed to breed entrepreneurship." And he looked no further than his own community for inspiration.
In a region so aware of the pure power of energy itself–witness how the coal industry ruled the area’s economy, culture and lifestyle for decades–Abrams felt a similarly energetic work ethic. Add in a host of technical advice from his father’s 20-year-old master’s thesis on biomass from nearby Wilkes College, plus then-soaring gas prices, and Abrams had the beginnings of his new life’s work.
Things started to gel for EthosGen when Abrams approached the DCED for business guidance on getting things started commercially. That led to $40,000 in grants from operating in a Keystone Innovation Zone, monies EthosGen applied to bolstering its patent portfolio by filing patents in several international jurisdictions including Mexico, Canada, and the European Union. The William G. McGowan Charitable Fund then matched their Keystone Innovation Grant and paid for interns from the Ethics Initiative at King’s College.
Currently, the main project at EthosGen involves working with the United States Department of Defense–the world’s largest consumer of energy–and their $1.2 million grant to fund pilot plant design. (One of just four Defense Department contracts of its kind.) Because, according to Abrams, an EthosGen CEA "can adapt to anywhere on the globe," growing biomass in Dallas, PA can be exactly the same as growing it in Afghanistan. Choosing the specific plant and enzyme cocktail to work over there is the crucial piece to that puzzle. Or, in Abrams’s words, "by better understanding the lock, we can better build the key."
As mobility is a strategic advantage for the military, "the primary logistics burden is fuel, so we’re constructing the CEAs that can create fuel onsite." This, among other things, increases security by reducing the number of vulnerable road convoys in the battle space, not to mention reduces the dependence on foreign oil.
But wait. A small PA startup…and the United States Military? Hand it to the Great Valley Technology Alliance, a KIZ coordinator, who introduced the team to U.S. Representative Christopher Carney of Susquehanna County. Congressman Carney, a Navy reservist who believes projects like EthosGen will anchor a green corridor of environmental industry in his district and create jobs, guided the Department of Defense grant.
All in all, Pennsylvania has helped incubate quite the pod of ingenuity for EthosGen, from the intellectual hotbed in the Northeast region to the startup funding to the pure energy of the commonwealth. "We started in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but the world has become a bit of a smaller place for us," finds Abrams. "This is pretty big for us."