In order to get his high school diploma in 2008, Daniel Gomez Iniguez was required to complete a research project. He had no intention of creating a multi-million dollar alternative energy company. At the time, Mexican newspapers were writing often about biodiesel, the alternative fuel produced from vegetable oils and animal fats. But there wasn't a Mexican company that had technology to produce biodiesel. So Gomez, who planned to do his research in chemistry, became very interested in how he could make biodiesel himself.
"I started searching the Internet," recalls Gomez. "It seemed real easy to make [biodiesel] at your home." Gomez went to the local university, Tecnologico de Monterrey, and found a Ph.D. who taught the course on biodiesel production. He began attending the class (not for credit), and he joined an informal biodiesel club. "Instead of going mostly to high school, I started going mostly to the university," Gomez recalls.
He learned enough to start making biodiesel from used cooking oil at restaurants, and compared it to making biodiesel from animal fats (the subject of his research project), to learn the process. He still didn't plan to start a business. Spending time at the university as well as going to biodiesel conferences throughout Mexico, though, Gomez met other people who could make the project into something much bigger.
Gomez and his three partners—Guillermo Colunga, Antonio Lopez, and Mauricio Pareja, who each had expertise in a different area of biodiesel production—started a not-for-profit foundation in early 2009 to develop biodiesel production technology. And when it brought in more than $150,000 in sales from another university, in Tabasco, Mexico, in the first two months, they invested the money to start a for-profit business. Today, Solben—which is a made-up name that combines the Spanish words for "solutions" and "biodiesel"—sells technology for biodiesel production from nonfood products like algae and Jatropha, a plant. (The company doesn't want to promote competition with sugar or corn biodiesel—or interfere with food industry jobs.) Solben also offers products and services to help customers with the biodiesel production process, including oil plantation seeds, seed-hulling machines, training, and quality testing. The company's government, private-company and university customers are in Mexico.
Solben's sales were more than $1 million in 2010 and the partners predict $3 million in sales this year. It is expanding into Central America, the United States, and India. Gomez, who was runner-up last year for the Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award and won the Global Impact Award, is also on track to finish his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Tecnologico de Monterrey in 2012.
ALLISON FASS is deputy editor of Inc.com. A longtime business journalist at Forbes and The New York Times, she has also held roles in venture capital and innovation at Hearst Interactive Media and digital strategy at a start-up consultancy. @alliefass