A big year for Rivertop Renewables has gotten even bigger. The Missoula producer of biodegradable chemicals received a $26 million cash infusion from outside investors in the spring that enabled the company to nearly double its staff. Then, the company announced last week that its first commercial manufacturing plant is under construction.
"What's really cool about this is that it's technology that was developed by Dr. Don Kiely at the University of Montana," says CEO Mike Knauf. "We're so proud of that. Finding commercial success with technology that comes out of the university is a pretty rare occurrence."
Before retiring from UM in 2008, Kiely pioneered what he called "progressive chemistry," a term that reflected his commitment to creating environmentally sustainable products. Among Kiely's biggest accomplishments was developing a method capable of inexpensively converting plant sugars into the biodegradable chemical glucaric acid. The chemical is an effective substitute for environmentally harmful minerals and petroleum-based compounds traditionally used to manufacture commercial and industrial products like road de-icer and dish detergent.
The problem with dishwasher detergents specifically is that they've traditionally been made with phosphates, a mineral that isn't broken down by water treatment plants. When phosphate ends up in waterways, it fuels algae growth and harms fish.
After 16 states banned phosphates in dishwasher detergent in 2010, manufacturers scrambled to find a replacement. "Consumer brand marketers came up with products that just really didn't work well," Knauf says. "People got a little upset, because they were noticing all the spots on their glasswear and less cleaning in their dishwasher."
Aiming to fill the void left by the phosphate phase out, Rivertop will begin manufacturing its Riose detergent builder next summer at its new plant in Danville, Va. The facility will be operated by DanChem Technologies, which Rivertop successfully partnered with on a 2012 pilot project. Knauf says Rivertop selected the Virginia site because DanChem had an existing plant that could be retrofitted to suit Rivertop's needs more affordably than building a new facility closer to home.
When the plant runs at full steam, it will produce up to 10 million pounds of glucaric acid annually.
When asked to explain Rivertop's rapid success, company founder Don Kiely attributes it to principles he set from the beginning, notably a commitment to creating nontoxic products from renewable resources.
"That's the pattern I think we have to follow," he says, "if we're going to be successful."