by Frank Todaro
The other day at a networking lunch I sat next to a very interesting man who is developing a fascinating idea into a business. I love business ideas and soon after his “elevator pitch” of an introduction, I began to pepper him with questions. Having worked on hundreds of business plans over the years and having listened to many hundreds more entrepreneurs pitch their businesses, I have become a bit jaundiced to the claims of great riches to be made with the needed investment capital. On top of that, I have helped write several successful business plans that raised the money they intended and were the genesis of successful businesses, only to have things not turn out as rosy as we envisioned. So when I hear what sounds like a great business model I want the details —because, after all, that is where the devil is.
Early on in my conversation with Willy Verbrugghe, I was nodding my head and saying “yeah, sure” to myself as he described his venture. But the more he went on and the more he answered my questions, the more intrigued I became. So intrigued, I scheduled a follow up visit to see his lab and hear more about his project. Early alchemists worked mightily to find the chemical formula for turning lead into gold. While Willy may be on a modern day version of that quest, he just may have found a way to turn something nearly worthless into something very valuable.
While Willy is a native of Belgium and still has a bit of an accent to prove it, he became a US citizen a number of years ago. Educated with several Masters Degrees, he has a successful track record as an executive running both public and private companies and producing returns for his investors along the way. He has been married for 35 years and spends part of his busy schedule spoiling his grandchildren. So Willy comes to this enterprise as a seasoned, experienced executive and when he tells a story that at first sounds too good to be true, you can’t help but listen very closely.
Willy and his team of scientists have developed a process for converting rice hulls into silicon. Rice husks turn out to be plentiful and cheap, while silicon in its pure form, is expensive and highly desirable. Nature, in her quest to protect the lowly rice grain, wrapped it in a very hard little shell. To make the shell hard and light she used an abundance of silica from the soil and her process made it very pure. While mankind has been struggling to get rid of rice husks for centuries, Willy and his team discovered a rather simple and inexpensive way to get to the silica and turn it into silicon.
It turns out that rice husks burn much like wood and can be a great source of steam and electricity. The ash that results is about 95% silica and 5% carbon. Willy and his team separate the silica from the carbon with a relatively low temperature process, recycle the carbon as filtration medium, and are left with very pure silica in a liquid suspension. With some additional refining, they get the silica to precipitate out into a fine power. Depending on the application, it is further refined to improve purity, with the most pure form being used in the microchip manufacturing industry.
Currently, microchip manufacturers get their silica by mining it and then using a very high temperature and expensive process to refine it. Willy’s process can produce material of higher purity for a fraction of the cost of the conventional approach. On top of all of that, Willy’s process captures all of the carbon and recycles it with none going into the atmosphere. Didn’t I say it sounded too good to be true?
The Value Proposition
What this means is that he has a process that creates its own energy from an abundant raw material of little value, is environmentally friendly, and produces a high value end product. In fact, the economics are so good that it makes sense to grow rice for the husk and give away the grain. While no one is suggesting that, it means that husk processing plants can be located near rice producing areas that will dispose of the husks, generate energy for the plant and the surrounding area, and provide food at reasonable prices.
Currently, Willy’s company has a sizable 18,000-ton plant in operation in Arkansas (the nation’s leading producer of rice*) and has proven out his process and gotten his patents approved. He is now looking for investors to expand his operation around the world.
I for one am waiting eagerly to see how his company develops and how his “alchemy” pays off for him and the planet.*Arkansas is the nation’s leading producer of rice, harvesting some 10 billion pounds per year. Arkansas is also the nation’s leading producer of rice hulls, which account for about 20 percent of that weight.