Archive: From Bits to Barrels, my transition from tech to renewable energy way back in 2005

Way back in 2005, I was at the forefront of moving from technology to renewable energy investments. I wrote a special letter to SNS subscribers about it all.  I was definitely early into renewables, and I was right, but it has not been a smooth road.  The major piece I mis-calculated was the effect of technology on the core oil/drilling business and how that resource could be extended.  Basically, I missed Fracking, but everyone did.  Doesn’t change the fundamental limited nature of that resource, but did slow down renewables a bit.  The technology acceleration in cars actually went a bit faster.  Fun archive read.







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Publisher’s Note: Martin Tobias is the quintessential entrepreneur.  I’ve now known Martin for a decade or more, and I am continually impressed by the energy, focus, intelligence and sincerity he brings to each new venture.  Martin’s contribution this week is particularly interesting for three reasons.  First, he has spent the last couple of years at the well-known Seattle firm Ignition Partners.  As you’ll discover, he had to go through a personal transition to get from bits to barrels, from venture investing in software and wireless to an operating role in an industrial firm.  This change was radical and so inspiring that I asked him to spend a few paragraphs describing it himself.  Second, Martin’s efforts will directly promote increased climate sustainability on a local, regional and perhaps even national scale.  And, finally, as world events such as Hurricane Katrina continue to drive oil toward the SNS $100/bbl figure, finding alternatives to this fuel is both timely and provides direct assists to our economy and security. It might even create Martin’s next fortune.


I gave a speech at a Digital Divide conference in Seattle a few years ago in which I suggested that cleaning up diesel emissions was the single most simple and dramatic thing we could do to reduce air pollution.  At a time when it is becoming painfully clear that small airborne particulates, such as those in typical diesel transport emissions, are causing real deaths among the very old and very young in our cities, the importance of solving this problem grows.  And while firms like Detroit Diesel continue to work on the engine side of the equation, firms like Martin’s Seattle Biodiesel will be cooperatively hastening this process, taking it out of the amateur fast-food-chain days, and bringing it into the days of global mass production, and a reduced dependency on fossil fuel.


As Martin notes, there may be nothing else today which is more important. – mra.



From Bits to Barrels


   By Martin Tobias



Having been a longtime subscriber to SNS and participant in FiRe, I should really blame this mess all on Mark. Yes, now that I think about it, that makes all the sense in the world. It is ALL MARK’S FAULT. Without the brain damage (and I mean that in the most complimentary way) of SNS and FiRe, I doubt this tech geek would have ever become CEO of a biodiesel company. I would have been happy living in the world of bits without much of a larger world view. Someone else with good intentions was worrying about the barrels, right? But I am getting ahead of myself.


In the Beginning…


There was a fairly typical tech-geek trajectory. In high school, programming Timex/Sinclairs in the drugstore to loop profanity on the screen, using a cassette deck as “mass storage” for my TRS-80, breaking a toe dropping my Kaypro “luggable,” president of the Science club… you get the picture.


In college, Marketing/Computer Science double major, COBOL/FORTRAN programming using a card reader, winning a NEC TV for selling the most dot-matrix printers, selling the first Leading Edge PCs to the university, copying research papers off Compuserve, being the first student to take an essay test on a computer (the Zenith Lunchbox portable with 5.25 floppy and fold-down keyboard), an HP 12C always in my shirt pocket, thinking the IBM AT was the “ultimate PC.”


Accenture came knocking right after graduation and pressed me into five years of programming IBM S/38s and AS/400s, until Microsoft saved me from the suits. After six years of serious hard work around the world on various missions, I opted for more pain and started my own software company in 1997. Loudeye Technologies (LOUD) went from napkin to 450 people and IPO in less than three years. (Ah, the good old days.) After a much-needed break, I wanted to get back to helping start companies (the fun part), and I have been doing so as a VC with Ignition Partners ever since.


So there I sat, just over a year ago, listening to yet another wide-eyed software entrepreneur tell me how he was going to be “the Google of XXXX,” or was it “the Microsoft of XXXX” – no, it was the “Cisco of XXXX” – oh, I forget. Suddenly, David Byrne’s “Burning Down the House” came into my head:


Watch out you might get what you’re after
Cool babies strange but not a stranger
Then “Once in a Lifetime”:


And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself – well…how did I get here?




And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? …am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
My god!…what have I done?


Well… how did I get here? Where does that information superhighway go? After a lifetime of solving software- and computer-related problems and looking over that horizon for what was next in that field, I was suddenly left wanting. A strong desire to build something REAL took hold of me. When the PC was in its infancy, there were many very tall mountains to climb, and climbing them made a big difference in the world. While there still is a lot of work to do, the path seems fairly well laid out, and there are plenty of very smart people on that path.


So where does the world need help? What is the #1 issue that will define this nation, and in fact much of the world, over the next 10 years? Energy.


There I sat, a lifelong Republican tech-geek software venture capitalist, wondering how I could make a dent in the nation’s energy picture. The next day I started canceling meetings and rescheduling my life around figuring out what new energy technologies were going to make a difference in the near term (as in: in my lifetime). It became immediately clear that looking at barrels and BTUs from a bit-and-byte perspective could possibly lead to new solutions.


The Big Energy Picture


Today we use fuels of all types for primarily three forms of work/energy: (1) to generate electricity (natural gas, coal, hydro, nuclear); (2) to provide direct heat (natural gas, wood, oil); and (3) for transportation (oil). Electricity has replaced a long list of mechanical activities (manual typewriters, screwdrivers, adding machines, watches, etc.) and continues to increase its share of the total, primarily due to the exponential growth of new electronic items in our daily lives.


We have multiple fuel sources to generate electricity and provide direct heat. Scaling up production in those areas is largely within our control (as a nation, we know the way, although we may not have the will). For transportation, there is only oil (well, okay, 99% oil, 1% electric buses/trains, bicycles, skateboards and rollerblades). Therein lies a problem, and quite possibly, an opportunity.


I may be an outsider on energy issues, but here are some assertions this outsider will make:


  1. We don’t have an “energy crisis,” we have a “petroleum crisis.”
  2. Americans are fundamentally convenience-oriented and do not have the                                         appetite for wholesale transportation platform change.
  3. Non–petroleum-based fuels that work in today’s engines (no platform change)                             offer the fastest route to petroleum independence.


Petroleum has a monopoly on transportation. A small handful of global oligopolies control the production, distribution, and consumption infrastructure and technologies. The DOJ should take notice. The U.S. is by far (4x China, but they are growing faster) the world’s largest oil consumer, at over 20 million barrels per day – nearly $500B per year at today’s prices ( We import more than 12 million of those barrels. After a brief flirtation with small cars and alternative fuels in the early ’80s, Americans went back to the well with a vengeance in their SUVs. We are punch-drunk at the bar, with a heroin needle in both arms, yelling “Drinks for everyone!”


This is an industry built on technology (combustion engines and mechanical drivetrains) well over a century old. Transportation is an incredibly inefficient use of energy. Less than 2% of the energy that starts out as crude oil ends up propelling me to work in the morning. Cars, trucks, and airplanes combined ( are the #1 cause of global warming, contributing 36.5% of the carbon in our air (yes, more than power plants [36%], but just barely). World oil discoveries have been dropping every decade since the ’50s.


Worldwide demand is today roughly equal to supply, at just over 84 million barrels per day ( A recent oil shockwave scenario ( showed that as little as a 4% reduction in oil production (terrorist, boycott, civil unrest, weather, whatever) would increase prices over 170%.


Supply/demand is so tight that any disruption at all can cause a price spike. Down in the Southeast Gulf states, where over 25% of American crude comes from and over 40% of our refining capacity resides, Hurricane Katrina has just inflicted over $26B in property damage (early estimates) and put a significant amount of our production/refining capacity offline or under repair. What will be the energy costs to the economy from that disaster? While some in Europe are making a concerted effort to address oil consumption, Americans sit idly by in our SUVs while the sucking sounds from China and India are only getting louder.


In the last decade, less than 1% of the more than $500 billion spent on venture capital went to alternative energy companies, and most of that went into long-term bets on the “hydrogen economy.” Very little of what has been funded will show any tangible benefit to our energy picture in the next three to five years. Existing players have ZERO incentive to innovate; they are making too much money! Here is an industry ripe for change.


Yet it ain’t going to be easy. Here is the bit-head way to parse the transportation industry: There are three major platforms in transportation, each built around a unique protocol (incompatible with the others): Gasoline, Diesel and Jet Fuel [kerosene]. The standard for each platform is open and defined by international bodies (ASTM, E.U., etc.). Each platform has been optimized for a specific set of applications:


Gasoline: passenger transport and light trucks

Diesel: heavy equipment and machinery, distributed electricity generation, heavy                                  trucks, boats, some passenger cars, and railroads

Jet fuel: flying airplanes.


Each platform is supported by a large, integrated network of very mature refineries, pipelines, terminals, trucking companies, and retail locations. A huge ecosystem of companies (GM, Ford, Chrysler, GE, Cummins, etc.) support each platform with a wide variety of hardware and software offerings as well as a world wide network of sales, service, and support for their products. The platforms are worldwide, employ tens of millions of people all along the value chain, have been adopted by nearly every person on the planet, and enjoy significant government support in every country at all levels. Makes you want to jump right into the fray, doesn’t it?


So Why Biodiesel?


The vast majority ( of each crude barrel of oil consumed in the U.S. is refined into gasoline (140B gallons/year), diesel fuel (50B GPY), or jet fuel (40B GPY). To reduce our transportation grid’s near-total reliance on distillate products from crude oil, you can attack the problem from either production (substitute fuels, use existing vehicles and distribution system – a backward-compatible version upgrade) or consumption (substitute vehicles, fuel, AND distribution system – the platform upgrade). Natural-gas buses are an example of the latter. Implementation requires a whole new fleet of vehicles, a new fueling infrastructure, scaling up production of natural gas, etc.


Despite years of evangelism and vehicle research, natural gas is still not a practical option for anyone except a few scattered (okay – Los Angeles), very centralized fleets with centralized fueling. It is like getting someone to switch operating systems or hardware platforms. Lots of pain awaits. What about all your favorite old applications? A drive to the beach house for the weekend? Oops, can’t – no natural gas stations out there. A quick jaunt to the mountains with a carload of friends for some snowboarding? Oops, can’t – the natural-gas car doesn’t have enough room or power.


Fuel cells for transportation are an even uglier platform upgrade. You need new vehicles of all types, new wholesale and retail distribution systems for the hydrogen, service and support infrastructure, and, oh yeah, an energy-efficient way to reform massive amounts of hydrogen from a cheap, renewable source. So why are Big Oil, Detroit, and Pres. Bush selling us that song? Good old-fashioned Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about change to the current platform. “Be happy with what you have today and place all your faith in a future upgrade.” I have seen this movie before: “Everything will be fixed in Longhorn [the next MS operating system], so don’t bother me to fix anything in the current version.” No, I don’t believe anyone selling a platform upgrade is serious about solving our dependence on oil anytime soon.


What it is going to take is a version upgrade. An upgrade of either the fuel or the vehicle would allow you to leverage the existing infrastructure investment. Since gasoline is the largest liquid-fuel market, you would expect the first traction for upgrades to come in that market segment. The Prius is a vehicle version upgrade for the gasoline platform: some new technology in basically the same form factor that is plug-compatible with existing infrastructure while providing unique new benefits (lower emissions and higher fuel economy). This is just the first baby step in the siliconization of the automobile. If you want details on how “the electric power train is overwhelmingly superior to the mechanical – five orders of magnitude better on every key metric,” read The Bottomless Well by Huber and Mills.


Ethanol (made from plant starch) is a plug-compatible fuel version upgrade that is replacing an older flawed technology (MTBEs) as a gasoline additive of up to 10% (3B gallons were mixed into the US fuel supply last year). A higher blend of ethanol (85%E, 15% gas), when combined with an automobile version upgrade (flex fuel vehicle – basically a computer timing upgrade), will yield even greater reduction in petroleum usage and more environmental benefits.


Alas, I have never been much of a hardware engineer, so no upgrading the vehicle for me. The ethanol industry is fairly mature and is mainly a capital deployment business today. While there is the promise of some technology change on the horizon (cellulosic production from the whole plant instead of just the starches:, the first commercial plant has yet to be built, and it will still take more R&D and 10 years to make a difference. The market also has a natural cap on it, in that no more than a 10% ethanol blend is backward-compatible with all existing gasoline engines (the 85% blend requires a new car with the new computer program). What about jet fuel? Humm, redesign a jet to be more fuel-efficient (already a top design criterion), or convince airlines to take a chance on a new, untested fuel? Looks like another LONG road.


That leaves the diesel platform. Most of the early advances in the gasoline platform do not transfer. Ethanol can’t be mixed with diesel effectively. Hybrids are okay for light commuting, but have been a total failure in heavy-duty applications. The city of Seattle tried some hybrid diesel buses and found that dragging the extra weight of the electric engine and battery packs up and down the hills resulted in WORSE total fuel consumption than straight diesel. The much-trumpeted Lexus Rx 400h just turned in 10% worse mileage over a 5,200 km road trip test against the Mercedes ML 320 CDI – all diesel:


While America turned away from diesels for consumers (as I did after an underpowered, dirty 1980 VW Rabbit diesel experience), relegating it to heavy industry, Europe embraced clean diesel technology, and today diesels power more than 50% of the consumer vehicles (in addition to the heavy industry). Europe also developed an alternative fuel in the form of biodiesel:


Biodiesel is a one-for-one replacement for petroleum diesel that can be made from a variety of vegetable oils, animal fats, and waste grease. Biodiesel is backward-compatible, with 100% of the existing fleet (minor fuel hose replacement in much older vehicles) and fueling infrastructure. It is biodegradable and nontoxic. It can be blended in any ratio with petroleum diesel or used in its “neat,” 100% pure form (as I have been doing in two cars for over a year). 100% biodiesel is renewable, carbon-neutral (the plants consume the equivalent amount of carbon that comes out the tailpipe), with lower emissions of all types across the board (although the scientists are still debating NOx).


In Europe, they make almost a billion gallons of biodiesel a year out of rapeseed. In America, soybean farmers have been driving the development of biodiesel, largely because they have an extra 1B gallons of soybean oil a year. The National Biodiesel Board has done the hard work of getting the fuel certified as an “alternative fuel” under federal guidelines and is carrying the torch for more government support of the industry. Last year, America made about 30 million gallons of the stuff (less than 0.0005% of our diesel consumption). Coincidentally, Seattle consumed over 10% of that and has the highest per-capita biodiesel consumption in the nation. The analysts project the market growing at over 100% a year for the foreseeable future.


The basic chemistry for making biodiesel is pretty simple. Vegetable oil is a triglyceride molecule that looks kind of like a three-legged stool. A glycerin molecule is the seat, and three ester (fatty acid) molecules are attached at the legs. The chemical name for biodiesel is methylester [alcohol] (you can also make ethylester, but I digress).


Those of you who didn’t sleep through chemistry class (as I did) have already figured out that what you have to do is detach the glycerin molecule from the esters and re-attach a methanol molecule to each ester leg, and voila! You have biodiesel. I have done it using salad oil in a blender (makes great margaritas afterward!). The glycerin and biodiesel separate like oil and water (different specific gravities), and after a little more cleaning, your biodiesel is ready to use. If you are going to sell it commercially, it must pass a battery of tests defined by the American Society for Testing and Materials (


So if there is a more environmentally friendly, renewable, ready alternative to diesel that is easy to produce, what is the problem? You could just as easily ask why everyone isn’t running Windows XP or the latest version of Office. Even backward-compatible version upgrades have issues. There are bugs in the new code that need patches. There may be field-compatibility issues with the many various configurations in the field. In biodiesel’s case, there are more issues. While soy is the largest crop in the world, soy is a fairly inefficient oilseed crop, at less than 14% oil. If one were to grow a crop primarily to produce vegetable oil to make biodiesel, one would not choose soy.


The first American refineries have been built by the same Austrians and Germans that are building the European refineries. They use first-generation technology that is highly engineered and very expensive per pound (think IBM mainframe). Good old American ingenuity and PC-style economics have yet to take hold. Even with recent crude oil spikes, it still costs more to make a gallon of biodiesel than it does to make a gallon of dinosaur diesel. Only government subsidies get the prices close to parity (in some locales, even less than diesel).


So I say to myself, “If someone could make a series of inventions (in crops, process technology, etc.) that lead to being able to make a gallon of biodiesel cheaper than a gallon of dinosaur diesel (with crude at, say, $45/barrel), well, that someone would have cracked a nut that really needs cracking.” This may be one of those rare cases in which one can do something good for the world and put a little jingle in the pocket, too.


So here I am, Chairman and CEO of Seattle Biodiesel, charging up the hill again. Last time I made it over the top, but the weight of the arrows in my back caused a bloody and painful trip back down. This time I am better prepared and plan to take it a bit slower and with laser focus. This mountain is worth taking. I invite you to join the climb. Mark, thanks for encouraging me to take the first step.



About the Author


Martin Tobias is the CEO and chairman of Seattle Biodiesel and a venture partner at Ignition Partners. Martin joined Seattle Biodiesel to drive strategic direction in May 2005, after investing in the company in late 2004 following a multiyear search for the right alternative energy investment. Seattle Biodiesel is a personal investment for Martin.


Martin has been with Ignition Partners since 2002, working with the infrastructure software and networking team. He has invested in over two dozen startups (some personally) and currently serves on the boards of Cloudmark and IP Fabrics. Prior to Ignition, Martin spent 15 years in operating roles in technology companies.


Martin was the founder, CEO, and chairman of Loudeye Technologies Inc. (LOUD), a pioneer in digital media production, distribution, and applications. Under his leadership, the company raised over $175M (including an IPO) and grew to be one of the largest providers of digital media enabling solutions for the Internet. Prior to Loudeye, Martin spent six years with Microsoft in operational management roles and four years with Andersen Consulting (Accenture). Martin received his bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Computer Science from Oregon State University . He holds two technology patents. Martin and his wife, Alex, were profiled in the 1997 Harley movie Biker Dreams and are involved in a number of charities through the Martin and Alex Tobias Foundation.




I would like to thank Martin for taking the time out of his brand-new career to provide us with this multi-layered view of how, and why, he plans to change the world.  If I had to pick a new path for this (or any) country to pursue in its pursuit of energy independence and pollution reduction, I’d pick someone just like Martin to lead the charge.  We’re all lucky he’s involved, and I hope his decision, and future work, inspires other SNS members to achieve related goals.


Your comments are always welcome.




Mark R. Anderson



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SNS is the most accurate predictive letter covering the computer and telecom industries.  It is personally read by the top managers at companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Dell, Compaq, Sun, Netscape, and MCI, as well as by leading financial analysts at the world’s top investment banks and venture capital funds, including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Hummer Winblad, Venrock and Warburg Pincus.  It is regularly quoted in top industry publications such as BusinessWeek, Newsweek, Infoworld, Institutional Investor, Wired, the Financial Times, the New York Times, and elsewhere.  SNS Conference Corp. is the host of the annual Future in Review (FiRe) Conference, now headed for its third year.  SNS is also parent to Project Inkwell, a consortium of global vendors and interested parties dedicated to accelerating the deployment of appropriate technologies onto K-12 desktops.


About the Publisher


Mark Anderson is president of Technology Alliance Partners, and of the Strategic News Service(tm) LLC. TAP was founded in 1989, and provides trends and marketing alliance assistance to firms leading the convergence of telecom and computing.  Mark is a Seybold Fellow. He is the founder of two software companies and of the Washington Software Alliance Investors’ Forum, Washington’s premier software investment conference; and has participated in the launch of many software startups.


A past director of the WSA, Mark chairs the WSA Presidents’ Group. He regularly appears on the Wall Street Review/KSDO, CNN, and National Public Radio/KPLU programs. Mark is a member of the Merrill Lynch Technology Advisory Board, and is an advisor and/or investor in Authora, Ignition Partners, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Chameleon Technology, and others.  Mark serves as Chair of the Future in Review Conferences, of Project Inkwell, and of The Foresight Foundation.  He is also President of Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance.


Disclosure: Mark Anderson is a portfolio manager of a hedge fund.  His fund often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns, both before and after the columns are published, and the position that his fund takes may change at any time.  Under no circumstances does the information in this newsletter represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks.



On September 12th, Mark will provide the Opening Keynote for the EdNET 2005 Conference, September 11 – 13, 2005 at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla in San Diego, on the subject of “SNS Project Inkwell: Helping Technology Transform Education.”  On October 13th he will discuss 2006 predictions for the Portland, Oregon Business Journal annual predictions breakfast.  On October 16th – 18th he will host the next SNS Project Inkwell meeting at the Black Point Inn, near Portland, Maine.  On October 26th he will provide the keynote address for the Rustic Canyon annual venture capital partners’ meeting in Pasadena.



In between times, he’ll be bucking hay again, twisting and lifting those 75-lb. bales in a complex motion designed to keep horses and goats and chiropractors fed throughout the winter.


Copyright 2005, Strategic News Service LLC

“Strategic News Service,” “SNS,” “Future In Review,” “FiRe,” and “Project Inkwell” are all registered service marks of Strategic News Service LLC.

ISSN 1093-8494


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I ride my bike, surf, develop great software products, develop real estate and invest in great ideas.

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