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Davis largely represented on Green Leadership Awards credits

By From page A1 | April 25, 2013

“Ladies and gentlemen” … is probably not the red-carpet style introduction those honored by the Business Journal’s annual Green Leadership Awards are accustomed to hearing.

At least that’s an assumption for the selected honorees — chosen by a panel of independent judges — given that they mostly hail from the modesty of small bio-tech laboratories or the offices of energy-efficiency companies.

Seven of the 19 recognized individuals and companies can be claimed as Davis’ own, including the winner of the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. Now that’s something worth applauding.

Gary Simon: Lifetime Achievement Award

If there’s any downside to Davis resident Gary Simon being recognized for all his contributions in making the region a hub for clean-technology ventures, it’s that he probably loses the distinction of an unsung hero.

“That’s really what he was,” said Meg Arnold, CEO of the similarly award-winning SARTA. “Much of the time he was a tireless advocate in our region, while living on the East Coast, and flying here periodically. … There are not many people who could sustain that.”

What stands out among Simon’s many efforts is CleanStart, which connects green businesses with the resources they need to flourish. The network of local companies under CleanStart has grown from an original 29 to 111 — creating a sector that brought in a combined $2 billion in revenue in 2012.

It was an endeavor he undertook in lieu of what was supposed to be retirement from a 30-year career in the energy business.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much of an impact you’re making,” Simon said. “I can say that before 2004 this wasn’t an area at the tips of anyone’s tongue when it came to clean-tech. … Still, I’ve been humbled by all of this.

“Davis is a place I’ve formed an attachment to, and I don’t want to leave it. To have the community in turn recognize what I’ve been doing for 42-some years was really nice.”

Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance: Nonprofit

Arnold, the aforementioned leader of the nonprofit SARTA, had just returned from her fourth trip to Washington, D.C. — where she had once more acted as a delegation on behalf of the area’s clean-tech sector.

There’s no doubt that she takes her commitment to the local clean-tech community seriously. And she’s not alone, as all of her team working on CleanStart and other programs that would accelerate the growth of companies in the region have devoted themselves to the cause.

“We have staff who put a lot of time and effort over the years into building the program,” she said. “Even though I was the one accepting the award as the head of the organization, it was specific to the program, and a real recognition of all of the work that so many people have put in over the years.”

In particular, their concentration on environmentally friendly technology startups with the CleanStart program has been the inception for a regional movement larger than themselves, Arnold added. 

Benjamin Finkelor: Leadership

No coincidence is it that Benjamin Finkelor, another Green Leadership Award honoree, also has roots in CleanStart. He once served as its executive director, and now holds the same title elsewhere — at the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center.

The longtime Davis resident even helped write part of the proposal that led to the creation of the Energy Efficiency Center, which oversees the research of lighting, hybrid vehicles, cooling and water-energy efficiency.

It’s the self-proclaimed first university-run energy efficiency center in America of its sort, in that it focuses heavily on bringing the technology developed there into the marketplace.

Finkelor, a UCD graduate, has since 2006 mentored teams of student researchers who develop business models around energy-efficient technologies. And with the $20 million in philanthropic support it has earned over the years, he’s likely to continue doing so.

Micromidas Inc.: Rising Star

It began with five UCD graduates and a concept. But this wasn’t an idea that resembled normalcy, it was the sort of ambitious plan expected out of the recipients of a “Rising Star” award.

Micromidas Inc. is working to develop technology to convert cellulosic waste into a chemical that’s used in the production of polyester and plastic bottles. It’s a $50 billion global market for paraxylene, the chemical they’re hoping to develop in a more eco-friendly fashion.

It was founded by these five graduates in 2009, and is led by CEO John Bissell. The group hopes to prove the viability of their big idea by building a demonstration-scale plant in West Sacramento, which they’ve already fundraised $13 million towards.

Pam Marrone: Entrepreneur

The pioneer of Marrone Bio Innovations, an international provider of natural pest management products for the agriculture and water treatment markets, is on a winning streak.

Pam Marrone, founder and CEO of the Davis-based company, has led her company to commercial releases of three products since 2006. The plan for the next three years is an expansion and doubling of the local workforce size.

And Marrone has a track record that indicates more success is left ahead. Her last enterprise was another green pest-controlling solution, AgraQuest, where she raised more than $50 million in venture capital for the company.

Her response to being named as an honoree for a Green Leadership Award? “Honored and surprised,” she said. “The Sacramento-Davis area has seen such incredible growth in green companies in recent years that the competition for this award is very tough.”

CleanWorld: Alternative Fuels

“Not just an idea,” was Davis mayor Joe Krovoza’s short descriptor of CleanWorld’s project, which he suggested in his note was long past the planning phase — his confidence in the project as palpable as the operation is at making waste digestible.

CleanWorld, founded in 2009, is licensing technology developed at UCD to create biodigesters — in a variety of sizes — in the region. Instead of focusing on larger digesters, where hauling matter over a long distance is a requirement, CleanWorld has strategically tended towards a smaller model.

The first CleanWorld biodigester is operating at American River Packaging in Natomas. The organization is on its third already, which is in construction at a shuttered landfill at UCD.

Davis Energy Group: Energy efficiency

The last, but certainly not least, honoree to round out the Davis representation is the Davis Energy Group, an engineering firm that has been specializing in designing energy-efficient homes since 1981.

In 2012, the Davis Energy Group garnered attention by completing one of the state’s first home certified as a zero-energy building, using features like solar water-heating systems and nighttime ventilation to negate energy consumption and carbon emissions.

The firm plans to continue improving the region’s neighborhoods in the this regard in 2013, by retrofitting existing homes with green technology. To that end, they may get an encore at the next Green Leadership Awards.

— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

Brett Johnson

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