As told to Hannah Clark Steiman
When the price of gasoline rises, Michael Brown and Jacques Sinoncelli feel pretty good about themselves. Their company, Greenline Industries, sells complete systems for producing biodiesel. Sinoncelli, a self-taught engineer, builds the systems and Brown, the CEO, handles the business side. The smallest system Greenline makes costs $4 million, takes up 4,500 square feet, and produces three million gallons of fuel a year. Earlier this year, to accelerate its overseas expansion, the company took on a $20 million venture investment. The next step: fighting poverty (and making money) by bringing biodiesel production to Africa.
Sinoncelli: Right now, all the world's energy sources are controlled by a few players -- the fossil fuel companies and the electric companies.
Brown: The energy industry is highly centralized, highly vulnerable, and very expensive. Our mission is to decentralize energy.
We started, in 2002, with a very simple plan, which was to build a biodiesel processor and make fuel. We bought a processor and could never get it to work. In the process of watching Jacques tinker with it, I realized he knew more about this than anyone else. So I said why don't you design our machine.
Sinoncelli: Those were the days when the price of gas was rising from $1.09 to $1.19, and everyone was up in arms. Both of us ran our vehicles on our own biodiesel, so we never had to buy a drop of fuel. I was passing fossil fuel stations, and I was euphoric, because I was completely disconnected from the pain that came with those price hikes.
In the summer of 2003, we got a call from a gentleman from Mississippi. He said, "We've got a bunch of chicken fat. We'd like to see if we could use your system to turn our chicken fat into oil." He came over and gave us some chicken fat to experiment with. It worked out, and he offered to buy one of our machines. That was when we got into making biodiesel systems instead of just producing biodiesel.
Brown: We completely redesigned the entire machine. The first machine was all manual -- it required several people to operate. But we quickly learned that if a human being can place a valve in the wrong position, he will do it, and he will do it repeatedly. So we automated it.
We are both pilots, and Jacques taught himself engineering in part by tinkering with his own airplanes. He is entirely self taught. He doesn't suffer from training, from prejudice. He doesn't have blinders that say "two plus two has to equal four." He's open to two plus two equaling five.
We have always done everything 50-50. It's worked great. We are extremely different people. But any time we come together in a room we reach consensus. There isn't a single time that hasn't happened.
Sinoncelli: We have sold more than 20 plants so far, though some are still in the process of being built. Our first international sale was to Romania, in 2006. We took on outside funding, because we wanted to ramp up and accelerate our growth. Because of the deterioration of the health of the planet, I'm always in this mode of urgency. It's never fast enough.
Brown: We'd like to make a version of the machine that would include a crusher and a generator. You could drop one off in a village, and it would contain everything needed to make electricity and sell it. That's the kind of thing that gets us really excited.