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Alumni

Cooking up high-octane fuel

January 9, 2012
by Tony Phifer

'We're taking waste products and making something good out of them. I love that,' says entrepreneur and alumnus Mark Smith. Standing in the pit area at a local racetrack in southern Washington, Mark Smith can only smile as he watches cars speed around the oval. Some of those cars are using fuel he created – high-grade, 110-octane ethanol – from sugar water. Or outdated soft drink syrup. Or rotting fruit. Or doughnut mix.

“It’s pretty darn cool,” Smith said. “We are taking waste products and making something good out of them. I love that.”

If things break the way Smith hopes, his ethanol venture, headquartered just south of Portland in Cornelius, Ore., will continue to grow from its relative infancy. While he has no plans to become a force in the ethanol industry, he hopes his ideas will help other small operations succeed – and eventually help reduce our country’s dependence on imported oil.

A beautiful thing

“Mark’s business is a beautiful thing when you think about it,” said Eric Osmon, plant manager at Bushmills Ethanol, a corn ethanol plant in Atwater, Minn. “He has taken local waste and turned it into a high-quality product that is used locally. It’s a great business model, and everyone, from consumers to the environment, benefits.”

Again, Smith can only smile. It has been a long, unexpected journey for him and his family to get to this point. He never envisioned himself making ethanol, and he certainly never expected to become so passionate about his craft and its potential impact.

Humble beginnings

Smith, a Broomfield, Colo., native who graduated from CSU in 1985 with a degree in Food Science, was working in the food industry as a sales representative for a French company after leaving CSU. He was living on the East Coast, making good money – and hating every minute of it. He was married with three kids, and he needed a fresh start.

So in 1996, he packed up his family, moved to Oregon and started a new life. He and his wife, Amy, started a small company – Summit Foods – that produced dried fruits. They worked on their business at night and on the weekends. To make ends meet, Mark worked full-time in food sales.

Eventually, their long days and short nights paid off, and Summit Foods now produces 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of dried fruits – primarily blueberries, but a significant number of strawberries, too – per month. They count Panera Bread, Otis Spunkmeyer and Mariani Premium Dried Fruits among their customers.

No to status quo

While Summit Foods is thriving, Smith never has been satisfied with the status quo. One of his pet peeves was paying for disposal of the waste water created in the fruit-drying process.

“It contains 3 percent sugar, on average – not enough to justify reclaiming, but too much to justify throwing it away,” he said. “I knew there had to be a better solution.”

His father, who spent years in the food industry, suggested that the water could be used to create ethanol. And that’s how Smith’s journey into the world of racing fuel – and helping solve the energy crisis – began.

Smith is restless – the type of person who not only survives but seems to thrive on four hours of nightly sleep. And he’s a voracious reader, eager to learn every available detail about a project long before it evolves from the conceptual stage.

So, he did not begin his ethanol project unprepared – or so he thought. He did his homework, Amy crunched the numbers and they decided to begin their second business venture and build an ethanol plant. They already had the space on their 2-acre site. They simply needed to visit existing plants, hire some experts, and start jumping through hoops – lots and lots of hoops.

Smith visited the Bushmills plant early in the process, and has kept in regular contact with Osmon. Even though it would seem as though turning corn into ethanol and transforming waste products into ethanol would be vastly different, the processes are actually quite similar.

New world perspective

Osmon, who said battling negative publicity surrounding the corn ethanol industry is an ongoing task, said Smith’s ideas immediately intrigued him.

“A lot of people in this country think food comes from grocery stores and fuel comes from gas pumps,” he said. “People like Mark are stepping away from that view, looking at this world and getting a whole new perspective.

“Mark had two significant challenges in this endeavor. First, he had to recognize and define his opportunity. Second, he had to create a way to meet that opportunity – not to mention, jumping through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops. Most people don’t have the vision or drive to jump through those hoops, but you have to give Mark a great deal of credit for making it happen.”

This story is an excerpt from the Winter 2011-12 CSU Magazine.