Editor's note: People over 50 are among the country's most active entrepreneurs, starting businesses at rates higher than their young counterparts. In this series, Inc. profiles the new wave of Boomer founders.
At age 78, Hiroshi Morihara runs marathons. That's part of his regime to keep fit for a higher purpose: teaching advanced skiing, which he's done since 1968. "Throughout the year, I have to be active--running, weightlifting, hiking in the mountains--so when ski season comes my legs and upper body are strong," he says.
Morihara also needs strength to run HM3, which he launched in 2008, at age 70. The company, which is pre-revenue but has several million dollars in investment, is developing a form of clean energy made from the waste wood that is plentiful in Oregon, where HM3 is based. "This is a very disruptive technology," says Morihara. "It is a great coal-replacement fuel."
Disasters, both natural and manmade, have taken their toll on Morihara's career. Prior to HM3, he was an engineer, executive, and serial investor, starting with 21 years in the R&D function of Union Carbide, where he worked on converting coal into gasoline. Then, in 1986, he was laid off with many others after the catastrophic gas leak in Bhopal, India. For a few years, he tried to build a theme park in Kobe, Japan, and traveled the world in search of compelling ideas. But the 1995 earthquake decimated the park's planned site on a manmade island. "The whole thing went bust," he says.
Next, Morihara was recruited to run two private biotech companies in the Bay Area that were struggling with management problems. He retained a home in Gresham, Oregon, and partnered with a friend to build a country club and golf course there. They later sold it to the company American Golf.
Ten years ago, Morihara retired. "My wife said, 'Hiroshi, you look bored,'" he recalls. "I said, 'OK. I have to think of something.' And HM3 was formed."
Interested in energy from his days at Union Carbide, Morihara learned that Oregon's only coal-fired power plant was scheduled to close in 2020. Finding an alternative fuel intrigued him. So he enlisted help from four scientists, some of whom he'd known for decades, and began experimenting in a facility at Mount Hood Community College.
What emerged from their research is a version of a process called "torrefaction." The process, which Morihara compares to roasting coffee beans, turns wood biomass into briquettes that are a clean replacement for coal. HM3's process improves on the existing technology in several ways, such as producing greater uniformity of material, which makes it better for burning. The company holds one patent and has several others pending.
Finding raw material wasn't a problem. "Oregon has lots of dead trees," says Morihara. "By removing forest debris, we can prevent wild forest fires. And also we can hire rural people, who have hardly any opportunities."
HM3's business model is to license the technology to power plants. Its first commercial partner is a Japanese company called New Energy Development. Last fall, HM3 opened a $4 million demonstration plant, in Troutdale, Oregon. U.S. senator Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, a supporter, attended the launch.
Funding for HM3 comes from many sources, including New Energy and other potential customers, as well as state and federal agencies. But Morihara also put in $1 million of his own savings. The risk, he says, is commensurate with the disruptive potential of the technology. "When I was young," says Morihara, "I was looking at how I could use my expertise to be financially successful. But after 60, my thinking shifted. If I do anything it has to contribute to the well-being of society. You may not live very long, and you want to leave something that is good."
Morihara expects to segue into a CTO role this year. He is searching for a leader to replace him as CEO and forming a board. Currently, he works six days a week, often until 8 or 9 p.m. He hopes by age 80 to scale that back to 40 hours, and maybe even reclaim Saturday mornings for golf with his friends. Traditional retirement, he says, is not in the cards. "Retirement means you can do whatever you want to do," says Morihara. "That is what I'm doing now."