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January 04, 2015 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Adam McCall building TennEra on solid rock

TennEra2(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another article in our series spotlighting start-ups founded on technologies licensed from the University of Tennessee Research Foundation. It is also part one of a two-part series updating the work of TennEra.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

Adam McCall is all about building a sustainable business that does not rely on government policies or subsidies for financial stability; but rather on the hard realities of performance and cost efficiency.

“We’re determined to build the house on solid rock,” the President and Chief Executive Officer of TennEra, LLC says of his nearly two-year journey as the top executive of the for-profit subsidiary of the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Foundation.

As noted in our series (Part 1 and Part 2) posted nearly a year ago, McCall is an East Tennessee native who grew-up on a dairy farm in Blount County. After helping develop several startups into existing operational businesses, he returned home to lead the new company focused on maximizing the value of biomass.

As such, McCall understands that sustainability must be balanced by two key dimensions. One clearly focuses on the impact that better utilization of biomass could have on the environment. The other is what drives any business: the hard realities of dollars and cents.

TennEra builds on, but is separate from UT’s leadership with the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, originating previously under the Genera Energy name. The common thread remains establishing a bio-based economy in Tennessee by developing a need for biomass, such as switchgrass.

“The current cellulosic ethanol model uses, at most, 60 percent of the material, with lignin serving little value comparatively” McCall explains. “This lignin, from the ‘backdoor’ of a bio refinery or pulp mill, is too chemically beat-up, if you will, to be used for much of anything. It (the process) renders lignin virtually useless other than burning it for heat. This heat generation is much less cost effective when natural gas is as low as it has been.”

Therein lies the challenge that consumes the TennEra team’s time.

“We need to get as close to 100 percent utilization of the biomass as possible by developing maximum value from the lignin” McCall explains. “The world has been at this puzzle for decades, but we are focused on being the ones to solve it.”

In the past two years, the team has developed two unique separation technologies. One, named EvolutiaTM, came out of research in UT’s Center for Renewable Carbon. Patent applications have been filed. The second technology was the result of work with outside consultants.

“The two processes achieve different end markets, but both attack the problem via an upfront, tailored separation,” McCall says.

The two separation technologies are only part of the solution. As McCall explains, several in industry have ended their technology there (the separation technology), hoping someone else comes along to find use for the individual process streams.

That’s not the case with TennEra.

“With those two front-end processes developed, our mission continues in order to create novel, high value, markets for the major components of biomass – lignin, cellulose, and hemi-cellulose,” McCall explains, noting that low-cost carbon fiber derived from lignin is part of the equation as are plastics made from lignin, and a few other exciting materials about which he’s choosing to remain quiet.

So, what’s next for this company?

“We have parallel efforts happening to further prove out our separation technologies while also supporting five different research groups within the University system in search of the ultimate product applications for the lignin,” McCall says. “I am convinced that with our strategy coupled with the broad group of incredibly passionate and brilliant scientists we have working together, we will succeed.”

NEXT: More about the future.

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