Under-the-radar research takes POET from the lab to the plant with big mission in mind

It would be understandable, but not entirely correct, to think of POET as an energy company.

The Sioux Falls business can credit most of its growth so far to its pioneering in the biofuels industry.

But CEO Jeff Broin will tell you this is more like a tech company, with a large Sioux Falls-based research team focused on finding new uses for ag-based products.

“A lot of people don’t realize we’re a tech company, but we’ve been heavily involved in research for more than two decades,” Broin said. “It began around our biofuels and has grown significantly in the last 12 years to include new research on new bioproducts derived from the byproducts of our processes.”

POET’s research and innovative approach continue to garner national awards.

Most recently, Broin was named to Environmental + Energy 100, the Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today’s annual “best of” list of change makers in that arena. On this list, Broin stands shoulder to shoulder with executives from companies including MasterCard, Microsoft, Ecolab and global industrial manufacturing company Ingersoll Rand.

In addition, POET landed on this year’s Fast Company list of most innovative companies because of its new product JIVE. It’s an asphalt rejuvenator and moderator derived from corn that’s 100 percent renewable and replaces petroleum in asphalt.

“I give our team members credit for this. They had heard about research around natural products in asphalt and decided to try using our byproducts,” Broin said.

“And it makes the most expandable rejuvenated asphalt that exists. In states like South Dakota where it’s very cold or Florida where it’s very hot, this asphalt can expand and contract more without breaking up.”

JIVE has been in development for a couple of years and is being used in pilot projects, which have gone well, Broin said. He projects sales could quadruple this year and sees the product being used worldwide.

“It’s a lower cost for municipalities, states and the federal government – ultimately the taxpayer. That’s who really benefits.”

The development of  JIVE is indicative of how POET has and will continue to approach research and its applications, Broin said.

“POET is always looking for ways to replace petroleum-based products with ag-based products,” he said. “JIVE was a culmination of that, but POET is continuously researching new products and processes, and we will continue to innovate and create new technology.”

Along with JIVE, Dakota Gold is another example of how POET continues to gain more utility from the corn kernel. It’s an entire line of animal feed products developed by POET, including distillers grains and pellets, which are ideal for swine, dairy and poultry. Research has shown the high-quality protein and highly digestible fiber feed adds significant value to ag operations, lowering the cost of production, optimizing milk production in cattle, increasing feed efficiency in beef cattle and enhancing yolk color in eggs.

There’s also Voila, a POET-developed corn distillers oil produced from a proprietary process resulting in an oil that’s excellent in animal feed rations and adds a high-quality source of energy to the diet.

Much of POET’s research occurs in Sioux Falls out of a 15,000-square-foot, two-story building near its corporate headquarters. There’s also an 8,000-square-foot bench-scale laboratory.

Inside, about 65 researchers represent fields from chemistry to microbiology.

“These are Ph.D. chemists and master’s-educated researchers,” Broin said. “We’re truly blessed to be in such a unique and exciting industry and to attract such motivated and talented people.”

POET also engages in research constantly at its two full-scale pilot plants in Scotland, S.D., and is leading the way on producing cellulosic biofuels from feedstock – corncobs, leaves and husk – and corn kernel fiber, which is the skin on the outside of the kernel. Cellulosic ethanol is highly pursued by those in the industry because of its low carbon-intensity ratings and its reduction of greenhouse gases.

Culture of innovation

POET’s ability to efficiently bring research into commercialization is a strategic advantage, both for the business and in terms of attracting talent.

“One thing I think we do really well is to unite research and engineering in a team that makes things happen quickly, to go from lab scale to plant scale in a very short period of time,” Broin said.

“No idea is a bad idea. And while we will quickly discard the bad ideas, we’ll take a look at any idea from anywhere in the company on any given day. That’s really behind our success. And everyone should get rewarded for their ideas at every level of the company. We really eat, sleep and breathe that statement.”

The company also talks about innovation daily, he said.

“The biofuels process itself has changed dozens of times since I’ve been here, so we continuously look at new ways to do biofuel production, and we’ve transferred that to bioproducts over the last decade,” Broin said.

“We have a lot of highly inspired people who are very driven to be successful, and they give us 110 percent, and that has led to the success of our company.”

POET’s team is driven by its mission, he added.

“We look for team members that are motivated to change the world around them. We talk about it regularly. It’s ingrained in our culture. It’s ingrained in our thought process of where to take this company and this industry next.”

The company is an example of the thriving and diverse bioscience industry in South Dakota, said Joni Johnson, executive director of South Dakota Biotech, the state affiliate of the international BIO organization.

“In biotechnology, we focus on feeding, fueling and healing the world, and POET is at the forefront of this mission,” Johnson said.

“This company, based in South Dakota, is redefining how we look at agriculture and its related products and using bioscience research to transform that landscape worldwide. We’re incredibly fortunate this company is investing in our state and attracting talent here to do such industry-changing work.”

POET draws talent from across the country, Broin said.

“I’m always amazed at the people who come to work for this company, not just from South Dakota but from around the nation, because they want to be part of the mission,” he said. “It’s a great asset for our company that we are based in Sioux Falls. It’s a beautiful city and a great place to work and live and raise a family.”

Much of the work that occurs in POET’s laboratories and pilot plants isn’t ready to be made public.

“We’re working on a lot of things,” Broin said.

“We see tremendous opportunity, and when you look at the damage petroleum is doing to our planet, we really have no choice. We have to get the products in our daily lives from renewable sources and not from petroleum if we expect to slow the effects of climate change, which poses significant threats not only for South Dakota but for everyone on the planet.”
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