Sapphire Energy CEO Jason Pyle’s Parting Thoughts on Big Biofuel

4/23/12Follow @bvbigelow

After stepping down as the founding CEO of San Diego’s Sapphire Energy, Jason Pyle tells me he’s accomplished a number of key initiatives at the algae-based biofuels startup, and basically that it’s time to move on.

His departure surprised me. Founding CEOs don’t often walk away from startups that have amassed a $1 billion valuation and that have drawn nationwide attention for developing potentially transformational technology. But Pyle says it was no surprise internally, where plans for the changeover have been underway for the past six months or more.

“From my perspective, this is essentially a positive thing for me and it should be for the company,” Pyle says. “I feel like I’ve done what I came here to accomplish.” The former Sapphire CEO also says he’s been emphasizing the critical importance of reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil in meetings with top government officials. In the statement the company issued last week, Pyle says he’s moving on to his “next endeavor.”

“There’s probably never a perfect time to do it, but you try to come up with the best time for everybody and work out the details,” Pyle says. He tells me he’s “deeply involved with a new enterprise that’s in stealth mode” and that a large part of the work is being done in San Diego. But he was unwilling to say anything more.

Succeeding Pyle as CEO is Cynthia “C.J.” Warner, who was recruited to serve as Sapphire’s president and chairman three years ago from her post as group vice president of global refining for BP. Warner has spent more than 27 years in petroleum-based crude oil refining, transportation, and operations, and she is taking over as the company focuses on its near-term goal—of producing green crude oil from algae that is consistently and reliably comparable to petroleum.

“The next two to three years of the company’s existence is going to be built around the commercial demonstration facility” under construction in Luna County, New Mexico, Pyle says.

Warner’s expertise is in refining processes and production. In an interview last October, Warner said, “all the first principles [about making crude oil from algae] have actually been proved out. So we don’t have any lurking issue that we simply don’t know how to deal with. Now what it really is all about is scale-up.”

Pyle, in contrast, describes … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • anonymous

    Heard they have 55 Phd’s blowing through approximately $5 million per month. Where is the promised green crude for fuel? Have been hearing the same song for years. Also, heard that all DOE grants and loan guarantees are being investigated by the IG’s office. Could be a big problem.

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  • Krassen

    Sapphire has been circulating this image for years now, and we still do not know what it represents. Is there really chlorophyll in their “green crude” to account for the green color? If that is the case, then the company’s claims of making something very similar to crude oil in composition are bogus. Chlorophyll with its cyclyc heteroatoms, is not what is normally found in crude.

    I remember seeing the picture in an article in Nature Biotechnology years ago and asking the author (Emily Waltz) about it. She responded that she got the image from the company and was likely an artist’ rendition. However, $350 mln later shouldn’t we have a better idea of what exactly is “green crude”, what are its production yields, what are the costs, etc. Presenting emotive images, instead of concrete numbers, strikes as a dishonest and manipulative way to influence the public opinion, given how much Sapphire depends on taxpayer money.

    [Also, the company recently announced a deal for CO2 supply for their algae farms, I assume to boost yields. However, how is that gas captured? The economic penalty on capturing and compressing CO2 from flue gases is an issue that has not been solved. Algae fuel is expensive as it is: high capital requirements, dewatareng penalty, etc. If they are going to have to pay for the CO2, that makes it even harder to contemplate as an economic proposition.]

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