L-R: Martin Tobias and John Plaza – (Photo courtesy of Imperium Renewables)
Key People: CEO and chairman Martin Tobias came to the company after a stint with venture capital firm Ignition Partners. He is also the founder and former CEO of digital media company Loudeye Technologies, now part of Nokia. President and founder John Plaza, a former commercial airline pilot for Northwest Airlines, is the inventor of Imperiumâ€™s refining process.
Key Innovation: Plaza, while on an overnight flight across the Pacific, realized he could drive his car for 43 years on the fuel he burned on that one flight. He later quit his job, mortgaged his house, sold off his motorcycle and boat to develop a cheaper way to refine biodiesel fuel. He launched Seattle Biodiesel LLC and built a 5-million gallon refinery in Seattle. Imperium was organized to create larger-scale production capacity for biodiesel.
Money Raised: So far $50 million in venture funding from Technology Partners, Nth Power and Vulcan Capital, among others.
Measure of Success: With the companyâ€™s Seattle refinery, Imperium has been selling biodiesel since 2005 to distributors Pacific Northwest Energy Co., Associated Petroleum Products, Pettit Oil and SeaPort Petroluem. In November Imperium broke ground in Hoquiam on what will be the largest biodiesel refinery in the U.S., able to process 100 million gallons of the fuel annually. The plant is scheduled to start production this spring.
No. of Employees: 36
Whatâ€™s Next: Imperium imports its soybean oil from Iowa, but Tobias would like to see Washington growers become local suppliers of oil seed stock, which he estimates could save the company 30 cents per gallon on shipping costs (the wholesale price for biodiesel was about $3.30-3.40 per gallon in the fall). â€œWhenever Washington state starts (growing) vegetable oil, Iâ€™ll be the biggest consumer here. I already have the refinery,â€ Tobias says. Three more 100-million gallon plants are in the works, including one in Hawaii and another in Argentina, so that the company will have a production capacity of 400 million gallons by the end of 2008.