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August 14, 2018 | Tom Ballard

PART 3: McCall describes Prisma journey as a rollercoaster ride

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third article in a series describing the five and one-half year technology commercialization journey that resulted in the recent announcement that Domtar had taken a major interest in Prisma Renewable Composites.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

As noted in the first article in this series, Adam McCall, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Prisma Renewable Technologies, says he can identify three “pretty significant” strategic pivots that have occurred in the five and one-half years he has led the effort.

Initially, he came into the leadership position as President and CEO of TennEra, a technology-based subsidiary of the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF). Prisma was spun-out of UTRF in 2015, and McCall served as the top executive at both organizations before resigning the TennEra position a year ago.

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” he says of the journey that recently resulted in Domtar Corporation (see our article) acquiring a majority interest in Prisma. Even as he made strategic decisions to change the start-up’s focus based on an ever-changing marketplace, McCall says he always did so with a fundamental set of principles as guides.

“I did not want to get those pivots away from the four pillars of the initial biofuels initiative investment,” he explained. “The four were developing opportunities for agriculture in Tennessee, supporting ongoing university research, bolstering economic development in rural Tennessee, and laying a foundation for the deployment of biofuels.

“A business must be willing to take the realities around it and shift as necessary, but that doesn’t mean you cannot remain true to your mission and roots,” McCall notes., adding that he has nothing but praise for the board of directors that has remained steadfast in its support.

“Pivots should occur naturally,” he says. “You have to keep the ear to the rail and pivot before it’s too late.”

Throughout the five and one-half years, the swings in the price of oil have been a constant factor. They have ranged from more than $100 a barrel to below $26. Those wild fluctuations have proved disastrous for most bio-based businesses.

“There are household (company) names that did not make it in the bio space as a result of those swings,” McCall says. “You must shift your market focus, your product offering, and even your business model if necessary to where there is demand. Is there someone in the market demanding it (your technology)? If you are a solution looking for a problem, you’d better start doing something else.”

McCall also drew on his experience building a boat company to ride the waves (no pun intended). Seventy-five percent of the inboard boat market dissolved in 12 months (2008-09), and yet, Malibu Boats Inc. increased its market share by 50 percent due to a willingness to innovate and pivot.

“We patented a bunch of cool products at Malibu that legitimately changed the industry,” he says. “At Prisma, I did not want to stay stubborn about the initial plans but instead take the realities around us, stay focused on our first principles, and stay ahead of the market shifts.”

To illustrate the point, McCall discusses EvolUTIATM, a fractionation process that chemically separates biomass into high purity, tailored streams of lignin, cellulose, hemi-cellulose, and other extractives.

The market was not ready for the patented process, but McCall has not given-up on it eventually being an extremely valuable technology.

“We have set that as a future stepping stone for our business,” he says.

NEXT: Lessons learned along the way.

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