Rivertop lands funding to extend biobased chemicals developments

By Bryan Sims | November 09, 2011

Missoula, Mont.-based Rivertop Renewables has received $1.5 million in a bridge round investment  from Cultivian Ventures, a venture fund focused on accelerating high technology in the food and agricultural sectors. The money will be used to continue commercialization of cost-competitive and high-performance biobased chemicals, expand its facilities for continued research and development and precommercial production through future contract manufacturing deals.

According to Jere Kolstad, president of Rivertop, the funding will also allow the company to grow its presence and become the anchor tenant at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center (MonTEC), a business incubator for technology spin-outs from the University of Montana in Missoula. Kolstad said that Rivertop’s ongoing presence at MonTEC is expected to generate additional revenue, jobs and education opportunities for UM graduate chemistry student, adding that he anticipates doubling the company’s workforce over the next 18 months.

“I couldn’t be happier about the University of Montana,” Kolstad told Biorefining Magazine. “I think we’re a pretty good story about how university research can turn into something and why that needs to continue to be funded.”

At the core of Rivertop’s technology is a proprietary process based on more than 10 years of research by Donald Kiely, a professor emeritus of carbohydrate chemistry at the University of Montana, which utilizes nitric acid to oxidize sugars that produces salts of sugar acids, such as glucaric acid, and other biobased fine chemicals derived from other sugars. The company has refined its oxidation technology into a catalytic process that reduces the amount of chemical inputs and consumption, minimizes the production of waste and increases the yield of feedstocks beyond glucose such as xylose, arabinose and galactose, as well as other mono- and polysaccharides.

According to Kolstad, Rivertop has been successfully producing several pounds per month of glucaric acid at lab-scale at MonTEC for more than a year. He added that Rivertop intends to increase output volume—about 100,000 pounds per year—at a semi-works pilot facility planned for development at MonTEC. For now, Kolstad said Rivertop is primarily producing batch quantities for testing purposes prior to launching contract manufacturing deals for commercialization of product, which are expected to be announced later this year.

“We’re very capital efficient,” Kolstad said. “If we bring in a pound of sugar we get out 1.44 pounds of product. That’s a yield that you don’t see very often out there.”

In the near-term, Rivertop plans to initially enter a $10 billion detergents market by applying its biobased glucarate products as an effective and cost-competitive replacement for the legacy ingredient found in dishwasher detergent, tripolyphosphate. The company also intends to supply biobased glucaric acid to the $8 billion corrosion and scale inhibition markets and eventually for polymer applications including hydrogels, adhesives, films, flocculants and other multifunctional materials.

As the cost of these feedstocks come down or as specialty applications drive demand, according to Kolstad, the company will explore the commercialization of other sugar acids such as xylaric, arabinaric and galactaric acids.

“We’ve got quite a bit of customer activity going on in the detergent industry,” Kolstad said. “We’re on the cusp of starting to see sales and rolling product out.”