John Sofranko’s idea, backed by decades of experience, sounds like a slam dunk. He founded Bio2electric, based at the Sarnoff Center, to convert errant polluting natural gas — the stuff flaring up from offshore oil platforms or seeping from landfills — into gasoline that could power any car.
After an arduous application process, his start-up was recently awarded a $600,000 Department of Energy contract to fund early research. Chances of success? “Five percent,” says Sofranko cheerfully enough. “Well, before the contract, I would have said 5 percent. Now it’s more like 10 percent. But in a year, when the contract ends, it could be more like 25 to 30 percent.” A second, much larger, contract could follow the first, and chances of success would rise substantially.
Sofranko, two years into his first entrepreneurial venture just as he is nearing his 60th birthday, is overjoyed to be back in the lab, but he badly underestimated the time commitment that his start-up would take.
After a career in the chemical industry, mostly at ARCO, he took a “tin parachute” package and soon was recruited to head the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, a 40,000-member professional organization. After eight years with the trade group, it was time to move on, and he thought a start-up would get him back into the scientific innovation business he had missed, while also providing time for golf.
“My sister-in-law warned me that a start-up takes seven days a week,” he says, “but I didn’t listen.” Two years and few days off later he knows she was right. “I belong to two private golf clubs in the Princeton area,” he says, “and I’ve played five rounds during the past two years. I used to play that much every week.”
That was back when he was a corporate employee, mostly working 8 to 5. Now he is pretty much chained to a desk, doing a lot of paperwork. But, funding in hand, Sofranko, who holds some 60 patents and a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester, is now happily moving ahead to forge the relationships he will need to begin to prove that his idea for turning natural gas into gasoline is sound and cost efficient.
He is getting set to hire some administrative help as well as an in-house research assistant. A lot of the early-stage Bio2electric research will take place at two universities — one will work on the chemistry, while the other works on designing the reactor that will convert the natural gas into gasoline. In addition, he is planning to partner with a fuel cell company with products that he is quite sure can be fairly easily modified to act as the reactors he will need. Right now its cells are too expensive to be practical for his converters, but he is confident that prices will drop substantially as demand for fuel cells rises.
He is not yet ready to name any of these potential partners.
Natural gas is already being converted into gasoline. Sofranko says that the process, invented in Germany before World War II, was used to power the Nazi war machine. After the war, American chemical companies spent a lot of time and money working on converter projects.
“I’ve been involved since the 1980s,” he says. Among his projects was a process that would convert natural gas on the north shore of Alaska into gasoline. But, he says, “the challenge is all about the price of oil, which is variable.” Companies spend a lot on designing conversion processes when the price of oil is high and projected to go higher, but “when it drops,” he has found, “they pull the plug.”
Still, huge conversion projects are in place. South Africa built converters in the 1980s when there was an oil embargo against the country due to its apartheid policies. And today big oil companies, including Shell and Chevron, are operating enormous conversion facilities in Kuwait and Qatar, where there are very large natural gas flares.
This is not an area in which Sofranko wants to compete. There will only be one or two of these gigantic plants built a year and, what’s more, says Sofranko, “I knew I couldn’t compete with a Shell or a Chevron. They have thousands of chemists working in this area. I’m looking for much smaller sources of gas. Our niche is 500 to 1,000 barrels a day.”
While there are only a few places on earth that could use an enormous converter, Sofranko says that there are many thousands of spots for a small converter — something about the size of half a house.
Offshore oil platforms are a prime target for several reasons. There are a lot of them, their natural gas plumes waste a valuable natural resource, collectively the plumes are responsible for about 20 percent of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and they can take electricity for their operations from the natural gas to gasoline process.
Sofranko’s converters will be mobile as well as small. This will be especially important for use at landfills, where, he says, output of methane gas is like to peak in the first year, then decrease by half during the next four or five years. There would be little need for a permanent gas to gasoline converter at a landfill, so his converters will be easy to move along to the next landfill.
Sofranko has funded Bio2electric himself since its inception. With the $600,000 Department of Energy contract he is pretty much set for the next stage, although he says that he might be looking for some friends and family money soon.
What he does not want, not yet, is venture capital money. He says that venture capital companies keep a close eye on the competitive Department of Energy awards, which, in this case, were awarded to just 66 companies — out of a pool of 6,000. He says that he has been fielding a lot of calls from venture capitalists but does not want to cede control in his company at this point.
However, he is working on three or four other ideas and might be happy to bring outside investors on board as he develops them. Having worked in the chemical industry for several decades, he has seen that companies spread their bets around by building a portfolio of product ideas and he plans to do the same thing.
As he pilots his company through its early development, Sofranko, who grew up Reading, Pennsylvania, is mourning the recent death of his father, Andrew, who continues to inspire him. “Dad was a mechanical engineer,” he says, “but he had little formal training, just one year at a trade school in Lancaster.”
Yet his father had a successful career that included four patents in steel mill designs that were implemented. “He was very creative with little education. He had a good paying job. He sent me to the University of Delaware (Class of 1975).”
Sofranko’s late mother, Lorraine, was a whiz at typing, accounting, and bookkeeping. Another claim to fame is that she graduated from Allentown High School with Lee Iococca.
Sofranko, a Princeton resident, is married to Carol Lee, a Ph.D. chemist who, after receiving a “tin parachute” of her own, became a teacher at Princeton High School. She is also on the board of Bio2electric, and, says her husband, “is my partner in every way.”
The pair work seven-day weeks in their second careers and plan to keep right on going. Their motivation, says Sofranko, is a shared belief that, after successful first careers, “it’s important to give back.” Also, he adds, they’re having fun.
Bio2Electric, 201 Washington Road, Princeton 08543; 609-734-2183; John A. Sofranko, CEO.