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Moving to Missoula: Rivertop’s new CEO

The cleantech industry is taking executives to some interesting places lately.

Earlier this month, renewable chemicals firm Rivertop Renewables, based in Missoula, Mont., named Michael J. Knauf as Chief Executive Officer. Mike Knauf is a 30-year veteran of the bioindustrial industry, having held executive level positions with Genencor and Codexis.

Rivertop makes chemical intermediates through oxidation of sugar feedstocks. Its first platform of products is based on glucaric acid. On Oct. 26, the company opened its new labs and semi-works facility in Missoula.

Cleantech Chemistry spoke with Knauf about his new job, and Rivertop’s future plans.

CC: What attracted you to Rivertop?

MJK: Rivertop is a startup with a promising future. Codexis had moved past start-up mode and was starting to form up as a company with products and services and a revenue line. This is a pre-revenue opportunity –  it builds on a solid breakthrough technology and was built by a great group of people. It couldn’t be a better opportunity for someone like me – a seasoned – in Montana they might say, grizzled, veteran. It’s really a great fit. I’m hoping my skill set will be what this company needs to propel it forward beyond startup phase.

My mantra is always listen to your customer. We’re are in the process of developing our market strategy – we’ve been talking to customers to really understand their needs. This company’s technology was originally applied to a market pull; a company was looking for a unique polymer and our founder identified glucaric acid polymers to meet their need.  Our  platform product is glucaric acid and other sugar acids generally broaden the range of applications for the company. The fact that Rivertop was founded on a market need is the key.

CC: What was it like to move to Missoula from San Francisco?

MJK: It’s funny – on a personal note I grew up in a town almost exactly the same size as Missoula. You’ve heard of it – Green Bay Wisconsin, but now Green Bay is maybe three times the size of Missoula today. My wife and I grew up in the same town.  We’re so excited to be part of this community. It has a great quality of life and lots of nature. The University of Montana is in Missoula and provides a tremendous amount of cultural richness you wouldn’t find in towns this size everywhere. It’s just plain beautiful. And no, we’re not worried about winter.

And the home we’ve purchased – well, there’s no stoplight between our home and the Rivertop offices and labs. When you’re from the Bay Area… that puts a big smile on my face.

CC: What are your plans for growth – production, product line, partners …?

MJK: So far, we’ve shipped product to a number of customers but we are not in full launch mode. We’ve been producing for customer testing. I’ve just started so I don’t have all the answers all right now. The plans are to continue with our product and market development. In some cases that will take us to partnerships and collaborations – with consumer product companies, chemical companies, and potential manufacturing partners too. We’re working on a detailed strategy that we will roll out when it’s formed up.

One aspect is different that I’m happy to talk about. When it comes to Rivertop versus other companies in the renewable chemicals space, our technology is based on chemistry rather than biology. The R&D timeline and manufacturing cost of capital is considerably less problematic. Biology takes time, chemistry is usually pretty quick. With biology you have to develop the microbe, along with all the aspects of fermentation and recovery of the product. Our chemical process development has been quick, and is well developed for a number of applications; it is a platform chemistry.

We’ll ultimately produce more than glucaric acid, though glucaric acid is a good example of an oxidized sugar with a number of promising applications. It was on the DOE’s original list of biomass derived chemical targets. It’s a platform chemical we can develop with our platform chemistry.

Our primary market opportunity for glucaric acid is the detergent market, which has many applications of interest to Rivertop. Glucaric acid-derived products have long been considered as potential builders for dish and laundry products. With product reformulations, such as to remove phosphates, the detergents can be made more sustainable and better performing – and that plays right into our strengths.

The other markets we are looking at begin with corrosion inhibition for deicing applications. That is an area the team found early on and is fairly far along, we are shipping product to transportation departments in the Mountain states, including Montana.

Right now this new guy says the sky’s the limit, but we have to focus on some particular opportunities.

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