‘Don’t waste a good panic,” says Michael Trachtenberg, founder and CEO of Carbozyme Inc. in Monmouth Junction. This time of fiscal stress is ideal for entrepreneurs wanting to bring on the green.
Having earned his Ph.D. in anatomy, Trachtenberg remains fond of physical/financial analogies. “Be the system biological or economic, you get only incremental evolution during the good times,” he explains. “But when whole climate starts to crumble, the call comes for major mutation, and that’s where green companies can step in.”
Trachtenberg is one of several on the New Jersey Technology Clean Energy Summit panel, explaining how green entrepreneurs can work with governments to move into production. The summit will be held on Friday, May 1, at 7:30 a.m. at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. Cost: $120. Visit www.njtc.org.
Trachtenberg’s fellow panel members include New Jersey Economic Development Authority CEO Caren Franzini; John Gimiglino of KPMG; Ron Reisman, of the state Board of Public Utilities Outreach; and attorney Christopher McAuliffe, of Morgan Lewis.
Other panels will cover “Positioning a Green Tech Company,” “Who is Investing in Green?” “Green Collar Jobs,” and “Energy Efficiency and IT.” Ralph Izzo, president and CEO of PSEG, serves as keynote.
Trachtenberg is an Edison-style entrepreneur who takes an existing science, sees a new and profitable use, and marries them by taking the science several steps further. Prior to founding Carbozyme he co-founded NeuroGenesis Inc., which by use of psychopharmacology treated addictive diseases. A native of New York City, Trachtenberg earned a bachelors in psychology and biology from the City University of New York in 1962. He then earned his Ph.D. at UCLA in 1967. “I was really training in neurochemistry, but they didn’t have department titles or teaching jobs for those disciplines, so they lumped my work into anatomy,” he says.
While studying the effects of epilepsy and brain injuries, Trachtenberg became aware of the relation between enzymes and carbon dioxide. The brain employs one quarter of the body’s glucose and transforms it into carbon dioxide. He also witnessed how certain enzymes, particularly one called carbonic anhydrase, could rapidly catalyze the change from CO2 into harmless bicarbonate, a buffering alkaline. This set Trachtenberg to thinking.
Smokestacks breathe easier. What if we could develop an enzyme that, like carbonic anhydrase, could swiftly change polluting industrial carbon dioxides to some harmless, inert gas? Thus in 1991 Trachtenberg founded Carbozyme Inc. Today Trachtenberg’s team has found the right enzyme and the effective membrane system to capture CO2 emissions in anything from a small engine to a major power plant.
“You cannot copy nature, but you can learn from it,” says Trachtenberg. Through endless experimentation, the researchers have been able to morph the right enzyme into a low maintenance, long-lived, fast-acting, and efficient catalyst that can handle a major power plant’s emission. Trachtenberg explains his micro-fluidic sheets as “millions of very tiny lungs” that breathe in the high-temperature, very complex, and very nasty gases from a power plant stack and convert them into hydrocarbons. Within the foreseeable future he looks at not only capturing this CO2, but restructuring it into useful energy.
Green’s finest hour. One would be hard pressed to find any other creation that had equal, unilateral support of the public, the government, and all levels of business as going green. Everybody appreciates the environmental benefits and cost savings of the latest green technology. NJEDA acts as a financing umbrella for at least a dozen funds, like the Edison Clean Energy Manufacturing Fund, to help environmentally focused startups. (visit www.njeda.com.)
Additionally, Trachtenberg points to today’s investing mindset brought on by the recession and the concurrent technology explosion. “We are in a period of economic retrenchment,” he says. “People still very much want to invest. But they are cautiously seeking more solid, proven fields.”
Despite nightly news horror stories, money has not mysteriously vanished. It merely seeks new channels of redistribution. Cleaner transportation, electricity, and heating sources are this business decade’s better mousetrap. Virtually everybody drives a car, uses electricity, and dwells in a heated building. All systems seem go.
Environmental hurdles. Green manufacturing’s greatest challenge is that the product is necessarily huge. “This is not like starting a 1990s basement-software company,” says Trachtenberg. “Green energy is more like founding a computer hardware company plus developing all the operating systems.” You cannot replace the oil industry on a shoestring.
Not only are the systems necessarily large, the clients are major players. “You are not selling $40 widgets to be bought on impulse. You’re asking clients to invest often millions in a new system,” says Trachtenberg. Because of the initial sticker shock for most green products, as well as the necessary adaptations required, clients are bound to exhibit some new-item anxiety. Be they home or business owners, potential users seldom understand the technology fully.
To overcome this high cost and new market mystery, Trachtenberg suggests that green firms give extra care in developing provability and credibility. A formulized, plain-English explanation of exactly what your product is, how it operates, and th!e exact dollars saved brings it into reality for the customer.
Further, costs must be kept at a minimum. It is all too easy for alternative energy to be tarred with the same brush as the high-gouging oil companies.
Whether it’s a cheaper solar panel or a conversion kit to biomass home heating, the public anxiously awaits the next green improvement. Venture capital desperately seeks to get behind the newest takeoff green company that will sell out to a major power producer for some dazzling sum. The stage is set. The global energy market is ripe for the next new entrepreneur. Green energy companies are lining up by the score to take their turn at bat. The question is, who is going to be innovative, low-cost, persistent, and well-staffed enough to knock it out of the park?