"It’s a really personal venture; when I started I had nothing so people were investing purely in my potential. The idea is that, slowly but surely, we’ll yield some results and people will get on board with the project”
It’s always a pleasure to be able to feature the real entrepreneurs of the bio-based industry in 5 Minutes With…, the true innovators whom risk so much to engineer and develop the processes and products that they believe will make a difference. The risks in the bio-based industry are significant, certainly in the instance of this week’s featured company, Visel Biofuels, which has to compete with the well-established and resource-rich petrochemical industry.
The founder of Visel Biofuels and self-titled chief inspirer, José Ramos, joins Dave Songer this week to explain the hurdles he has had to clear over the last three years to where he is now, the people helping him, the work he still has to do to reach his ten-year goal, and the optimism he has for the future.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi José, it’s great to be able to feature Visel Biofuels, can you begin by providing some details on the company?
José Ramos (JR): Sure, I’m the founder of Vísel Biofuels, which is a Mexican start-up that was incorporated in late 2015. The company has invested in its own proprietary technology and has focused on purifying the waste from the biodiesel process in order to produce more biodiesel, high purity glycerin and methanol. As of now, we’re working to secure capital to scale this process from lab to pilot plant and we intend to couple to this process in the future with our own biodiesel production from vegetable oils.
DS: What first inspired you to want to work in the biofuel industry and what do you most enjoy about it?
JR: The idea of the company started when I was still working for the biggest oil company in the world, Saudi Aramco (@Saudi_Aramco), on oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. After five years of witnessing how dirty the oil industry is I started to formulate a change – a plan emerged to start my own bio-refinery that instead processed only renewable feedstock to produce fuels and bio-chemicals.
There's no doubt I really enjoy the challenge. Being an entrepreneur in Mexico is daunting enough, but add into the mix a long-term project using new grass-roots technology to develop from R&D to pilot, and then commercial production – that all brings a new dimension of excitement.
DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
JR: Securing funding and resources, which enables us to stay alive and moving forward. There’s nothing exotic about how I achieved that: I have depended on my family and friends. The business isn’t yet at a point where it’s ready for an approach from an investment fund, so it’s really down to my support group and anyone who actually trusts what we do.
It’s a really personal venture; when I started I has nothing so people were investing purely in my potential. Ultimately it’s all on a promise. The idea is that, slowly but surely, we’ll yield some results and people will get on board with the project, not as much on the person as it is now.
DS: What advice would you give someone looking to get started in the bio-based industry?
JR: Aim at developing your own technology or securing a competitive advantage. It also helps to have experience in the field, so if starting a venture such as this one, it doesn't have to just be in the oil industry, but might instead be in chemical process or design industries and engineering. This sort of experience would really help because it would enable you to be able to see how processes can be developed, how long it takes, the steps one should take and the patience that’s needed – they’re very important. The little details can be learnt along the way.
And, as we’ve discussed, I would advise anyone new to bio-based to be prepared to take big risks both personally and professionally. I have taken the first risks by devoting my time and resources, but also had to invite people to take a risk with me and say: “yeah, let’s go for it!”
DS: How has the industry changed in the (nearly) three years you’ve been involved?
JR: Attitudes are beginning to shift, people, governments and institutes recognise not only the need to develop bio-based businesses and economies but also to invest in their long-term potential. I’m really hopeful that that will continue and improve. Of course, it’s sometimes built on trends and fashion, but fortunately I’m guessing the trends and what people want are kind of aligning because people are really starting to see climate change for the first time. Even people who have nothing to do with scientific or engineering industries are starting to see how it affects them. In this neck of the woods, for example, people have started to notice the subsidies being taken away from fuels and they’re feeling the pain in their wallet and cheque book. So the opportunity is there for bio-based, but it’s vital that they compete on price with fossil-based because if it doesn’t then you’re out, right?
DS: Where would you like to see @ViselBiofuels in ten years’ time?
JR: Having at least two commercial plants in different parts of the world that take in vegetable oils to produce biodiesel, purify the resulting glycerin and upgrade the glycerin into value-added bio-chemicals, such as super-absorbent polymers.
DS: You worked and studied in Saudi Arabia before Visel – to what extent has that helped you in your career?
JR: Tremendously. I can’t overstate the importance of understanding the business and operation aspects of an oil refinery in order to launch a successful biofuels/bio-based industry. It would be almost impossible as a start-up to avoid the many pit-falls of developing a chemical and fuel manufacturing system from the ground up without the methodology, know-how and patience that I learnt when operating, designing, planning, executing and commissioning new equipment and new plants in Saudi Arabia's oil refineries.
DS: Did you enjoy this year’s World Bio Markets this year – what did you speak about there?
JR: I spoke about Vísel Biofuels in general, what we have done, what we are doing and where we are heading. I underlined the resources we need to secure orders and move towards our goals, as well as the challenges we faced in the past – along with the lessons we learnt! As for what I enjoyed, the networking at the show was great; a great collaboration with the University of Amsterdam is starting to take shape as they’re beginning a research project into transforming glycerin to super-absorbent polymers, which is of great interest to us.
DS: What is your favourite bio-based product and why?
JR: I would have to say bio-based, biodegradable polymers that are used in food packaging. The potential impact they can have on the world can change lives and improve the entire environment. Speaking optimistically, I think we can reach
that point in five years. It’s right around the corner, I hope.
DS: Thanks so much, José. All the best with hitting your goal of constructing two commercial plants.
Read the last 5 minutes with… Chris Sayner, vice president of corporate sustainability at Croda.
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