Groundbreakers: Women in Biofuels

Five women working on the development of next-generation biofuels tell their stories
By Holly Jessen | May 10, 2012

They are the CEOs and managers of multimillion dollar corporations. Some are scientists, safety experts and chemical engineers. While each has had widely different experiences, one thing they have in common is that they are women, working in careers where most of their colleagues are men. Ethanol Producer Magazine talked to five women who have achieved notable success in their fields. They handle the reality of working in a male-dominated world in different ways and provide insight into work involved in developing second-generation alternative fuels.

Kef Kasdin, CEO of start-up company Proterro, has worked in male-dominated careers from day one and has gotten so used to it she barely notices it anymore. “I’ve never been in a majority situation and it doesn’t faze me necessarily,” she says. Recently, she spoke at a conference and was in the unusual situation of being one of three female speakers on a panel. Only the fourth speaker and the moderator were male. Despite signs of progress such as that, she can’t deny that the good old boys network exists—but it has never stopped her. “In some respects you get a little more visibility when you are the only woman in a room—sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad,” she says with a laugh.

When asked if she has encountered any discrimination working as a woman in a male-dominated field, scientist Susan Leschine’s answer is a definite yes. “There really is a glass ceiling,” she says, pointing to statistics that show female faculty members at universities generally have lower salaries than males with equivalent experience and the fact that there are very few women working in leadership or administrative positions. “Women scientists often face numerous prejudices that are often very, very subtle,” she says. Still—not wanting to generalize—she points out that there are men in her field who don’t discriminate based on gender and even cases of women who do. “I have male colleagues who are incredibly supportive and encouraging and get it all the way, and who will go out of their way to promote me and other women scientists,” she says.

BP Biofuel is an example of a company that is working to “ensure a balanced and diverse workforce” while still hiring the most capable employees for the job, according to a statement on the company’s recruitment strategy. At the Global Technology Center, the company’s research and development center in San Diego, about 33 percent of current staff are women and, in 2011, 58 percent of all new full-time hires were women. The company provided EPM with biographical information about seven women working in biofuel-related jobs, including Katrina Landis, CEO of BP Alternative Energy, and Sue Ellerbusch, president of BP Biofuels North America, women working at the top level of the company’s biofuels business. Other women working for BP Biofuels include Kirsty Salmon, head of research, Ruth Scotti, market development manager, Tami Myers, agricultural land specialist, Nicole Coffee, operations manager, and Tabitha Laser, agricultural operations health, safety, security and environmental manager, the last two of whom EPM interviewed for this story.

Coffee told EPM the company’s efforts to hire women are apparent. Although she has, in a few rare cases, worked with other female engineers, her current job is her first as manager. And, she’s never before worked for a company has had women serving in positions above her, she says, pointing out that two of the five people above her in the chain of command are women. Coffee particularly admires Ellerbusch and Landis for their work in the biofuels arena. “It’s amazing what those two have been able to do,” she says.

Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of Lanza-Tech, says she’s seeing more women entering the clean technology space than ever before, though the majority still are men. “This is a trend that I see continuing in the coming years as the industry grows and creates additional opportunities for both men and women to apply their skills and training to solve big problems,” Holmgren tells EPM.

The U.S. DOE sees the importance of harnessing the talents of women in the clean energy sector. In late April, the DOE and the MIT Energy Initiative announced a plan to implement the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment initiative. Known as C3E, the program aims to attract more women to clean energy careers and support their advancement into leadership positions. “We are excited to join with MIT to ensure we are leveraging the skills and experiences of women nationwide to help solve important national and international energy challenges,” says Energy Secretary Steven Chu. C3E was launched at the first Clean Energy Ministerial in July 2010.

The stories of these five women show the many paths that lead to clean energy careers.

Microbe Love
Leschine discovered Clostridium phytofermentans, dubbed the Q Microbe, the proprietary microbe Qteros designed its consolidated bioprocessing technology around. One of the authors on the patent, Leschine continues teaching and researching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s department of microbiology, where she did her postdoctoral work, and isn’t active in Qteros.

When she was growing up, there weren’t many role models for women that didn’t follow the accepted path of getting married and raising children. The idea of becoming a scientist wasn’t even on her radar until her senior year in college. “I was told that girls don’t like science and if they do that means they want to be, oh—I don’t know—maybe a nurse,” she says.

A fascination with the then-emerging field of molecular biology led her to earn a doctorate in biophysics and microbiology from the University of Pittsburg in 1975. A course in marine biology, which covered the topic of microbial diversity, sealed the deal. “I fell in love with microbes,” she says.

Ever since then, Leschine has focused her attention on microbes. She’s interested in the fundamental question of the role microbes play in the global carbon cycle, breaking down plant fiber into CO2 and methane, and how those microbes convert plant biomass into products that are useful to society. In 1996, that quest led her and a lab assistant to take a soil sample from an intermittent stream that flows into Quabbin Reservoir, not far from the university. Although they had soil samples from all over the world, it was that one—collected in their backyard—which launched Qteros. “It was the only one that we got that was very different and it was the only one with these amazing special properties that suggested it would be a good catalyst for cellulosic ethanol production,” she says.

At the time, Leschine was disappointed with the lack of diversity they found in that microbe study. Today, she knows better. It’s not that the Q Microbe is rare, she explains, it’s just very difficult to separate from soil samples. Overall, microbes are extremely diverse. “We know less than one-tenth of one percent of the microbes that are out there,” she says.

In the meantime, her fascination with microbes has not waned—she’s still isolating new microbes. Currently, she’s working on a project to identify microbial catalysts to convert municipal solid waste into biofuels and various other products. “I don’t know yet how that will fall out in terms of the products, but I would make a guess that ethanol will be the main product,” she says.

And, she’s still working on Q Microbe-related research. As it turns out, that microbe is part of a large family of microbes that are an important part of the human gut, aiding in the digestion of plants. “Remember, eat your vegetables?” she asks with a laugh. “These microbes that we’ve discovered—not only are they useful for making ethanol—but it turns out that they are part of a group of microbes that may be important for our health.”

Breaking Barriers
Proterro’s Kasdin didn’t start out her career with any idea she would be working in alternative energy. She earned an undergraduate degree in operations research, part of the engineering department at Princeton University. “It gave me a broad understanding of how to solve large systemic problems and I think that’s what the energy system is all about,” she says. After working for a few years in management consulting, she went back and earned her masters of business administration at Stanford University. Her one regret? Not taking more chemistry classes, she says, adding that she’s self-taught and surrounds herself with capable people to make up for it.

Kasdin’s background is primarily in communications technologies. As part of that, she spent nine years working for 3Com Corp., where she was general manager of a $1 billion division. Then, nine years ago she helped form Princeton, N.J.-based Battelle Ventures, a $220 million early-stage venture capital fund, of which she is a general partner. Battelle Ventures helps launch new companies developed in university, industrial or government laboratories. One fertile ground for that is through Battelle Ventures’ sole limited partner, Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages or co-manages National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the U.S. DOE.

That’s where her career took the alternative energy path. After working to create several companies from early-stage technologies, a conversation with John Aikens led to the founding of Proterro. Aikens, who is now the chief technical officer of Proterro, introduced the idea of using an organism to produce sugar directly without an agricultural-based process. Four years ago, Kasdin became the CEO of Proterro—as she had for Battelle Venture-backed companies in the past—and today the company has a sucrose-producing organism and a working model of its photobioreactor system. “I’ve done this as Proterro CEO for longer than any of the other companies that we created at Battelle Ventures, and it really has become my full time job,” she says, adding that she believes Proterro’s technology is a “game changing idea.”

Focus on the Prize
Another high-profile woman working at the helm of a renewable energy company is Holmgren, of LanzaTech. The company is working to bring online the world’s first waste gas-to-ethanol facility in China, licensed its technology to produce fuels from syngas produced from municipal solid waste in India, and acquired the former Range Fuels wood-to-ethanol facility in Soperton, Ga., with plans to restart it as Freedom Pines Biorefinery. “I learned early in my career that the key to success is not just having a novel technology with a lot of potential,” she says. “You also need to be serious about deploying it into the global economy. You have to make a business out of it. Transitioning a technology from the lab to a commercial success is harder than most people think.”

Holmgren takes “great joy” from working with a team that has taken the LanzaTech technology from the lab to a global renewable energy business that will have benefits far beyond just profit. Harnessing waste gases for renewable fuel or power will help countries democratize energy supplies, reduce reliance on imported fuels and also enable more people to attain better standards of living, she says.

Science has always interested Holmgren. Like many other children, she first wanted to be an astronaut after NASA landed a man on the moon when she was nine years old. In high school, she had a chemistry teacher whose enthusiasm was infectious. She earned an undergraduate degree from Harvey Mudd College, a masters of business administration from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has coauthored 50 U.S. patents, 20 scientific publications and, in 2003, received an award from the Council for Chemical Research for outstanding contribution to chemistry and chemical engineering.

Although there are risks in the business Holmgren works in, she has a natural positive outlook that helps her focus on potential for good outcomes rather than failure. “In the business I am in now, you need to be aware of the risks, but you must continually focus on the prize,” she says.

Holmgren has more than 20 years of experience in the energy sector, including working as vice president and general manager of the Renewable Energy and Chemicals business unit at UOP LLC, a Honeywell company. In that job she led the company’s renewable energy business from inception to commercialization of several biofuels technologies. “I was proud to work on the first renewable aviation fuel projects and be part of the team that really made history by revolutionizing aviation fuel,” she says. “The notion that a renewable aviation fuel could be produced and certified for flight was completely novel and everyone said you couldn’t do it when we started the tech program. I like to work on things people say can’t be done.”

BP Biofuels Backs Women
While a lot of people believe cellulosic ethanol will play an important role in the future, BP employee Coffee has the experience to back that statement up. “It’s not the whole solution, but it is a piece of it,” she tells EPM. Coffee is an operations manager at BP’s Jennings, La., 1.4 MMgy cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant—the largest operational cellulosic ethanol plant in North America. She was working in the chemical industry when she was hired on by Verenium in 2007 and became a BP employee in 2010, when the company purchased its former joint venture partner’s biofuel assets. It was an exciting and intriguing opportunity, she says, to come in on the ground floor of the brand-new industry of cellulosic ethanol. “It’s still just as challenging as when I came to work here,” she says. “Every aspect of it is definitely the most challenging, most exciting career move I could have ever made.”

Although the demo plant is managed as a 24/7 facility, in reality it’s a testing facility that shuts down periodically so the plant can be modified. “It’s a continuous cycle,” Coffee says. The goal is to gain understanding of cellulosic ethanol technology in order to reach commercial-scale production.  “We bridge the gap between the research and development that’s being done in San Diego at the Global Technology Center, to the engineering group that is designing the commercial facilities,” she says. Her job is to make sure the facility has everything it needs for safe and reliable operation.

Coffee’s trajectory to the cellulosic ethanol industry started with a love of math and science. She decided to pursue a degree in chemical engineering, since she enjoyed chemistry more than electrical or mechanical engineering. Still, it wasn’t until the summer before she graduated, when she completed an internship at a chemical plant, that she really understood what kind of a job she was signing up for. “I came out completely rejuvenated and said, ‘This is definitely what I want to do,’” she says. “It was reaffirming that the decisions I had made were the correct decisions.” After graduating from Louisiana Technical University, she worked for 19 years in the petrochemical industry in operations, research and development and technology development.

Almost 1,000 miles away from the BP demo plant, the company is working to build a 36 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant in Lorida, Fla. As part of that effort, planting of energy grasses and energy cane has already begun and construction on the biofuels facility is expected to begin this year. BP employee Laser, a safety expert with 19 years of experience, was hired more than a year ago to make sure that the company’s strong safety culture translated into best practices for agricultural safety. Her job is to work with managers, employees and contractors, yes, but the list includes farmers as well. “We are also trying to communicate best practices across the board in agriculture, so that we can improve processes everywhere,” she says.

It’s a huge challenge and an opportunity. This is Laser’s first time working in the alternative energy field and she’s somewhat new in working in the agricultural arena as well. The most exciting thing about it, she says, is the chance to start work at the ground level, “before everything is already broke.” She’s also excited about the company’s ultimate goal—producing biofuels from biomass. “You can only utilize resources that are coming from inside the earth for so long, you’re going to need some kind of sustainable energy going forward,” she says.

Laser points to a tragic accident she witnessed as the origin of her passion for safety. At three years old, she watched her father attempt to light the barbeque with gasoline after he ran out of lighter fluid. He siphoned gas and threw it from 10 feet. The flames flashed back, setting him on fire, requiring about nine months in burn treatment. The incident left physical scars on her father and psychological scars on the entire family. “I remember like it was yesterday,” she says. “I think, honestly, that’s where it started. As a little girl I wanted to save the world.”

When she entered college she went through one semester with a major in criminal psychology. Realizing she wanted to work to help change behaviors before people were committed, Laser worked with the dean of her school to structure a degree that fit her interests. She went on to earn an undergraduate degree in industrial and behavioral safety engineering, followed by a masters degree in safety management, both from the University of Central Missouri. “You have to actually address the behavior to make a difference,” she says.

In the almost two decades before she joined the BP team, Laser managed safety programs for a wide variety of industries. Some of the companies she has worked for include TruGreen, Terminix, General Mills, Charter Communications and 3M. While the companies often already had safety programs in place, her passion is starting from scratch. “A lot of my intent was going into a company that had no safety program whatsoever and trying to help them build a world-class safety program that would help ultimately save lives,” she says.

Author: Holly Jessen
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
(701) 738-4946
hjessen@bbiinternational.com