In the nearly 15 years since Colin Huwyler turned a college hobby into a biofuel startup, his current venture, Optimus Technologies, is helping commercial trucking fleets reduce reliance on, and expense of, fossil fuels. Since its launch in 2010, Huwyler and Optimus have garnered accolades for the technology behind dramatic vehicle emissions reductions for the city of Pittsburgh and other fleets. Read on for this innovator’s take on why sustainable business matters for the region.
What are some big-picture trends in sustainability that organizations in our region should be paying attention to?
In our region, I think organizations could be paying much more attention to the sustainability impacts of the shale gas industry. There is a double-edge sword when it comes to natural gas. As a region, we’re poised to benefit from the economic impacts; however, there is a significant environmental impact that typically doesn’t make its way into the equation. I’m not advocating for environmental considerations above all else, but environmental and sustainability impact considerations are being integrated into business in a larger context globally and I think we’re missing an opportunity here. One thing in particular that I think presents a significant sustainability challenge for our region is the proposed cracker plant in Beaver. We have an opportunity to look toward the future or to double down on a legacy of fossil fuels.
Globally, sustainable investments are up dramatically. Specifically, if we look at sustainable plastics, the bio-plastics and bio-polymers market is exploding. One easily relatable example is Coke’s PlantBottle packaging — a plastic beverage bottle that is derived from plant-based plastics. That product now accounts for over 30 percent of Coke’s packaging volume in North America and is attributed to a portion of their growth in sales. Rather than expand Pittsburgh’s breadth of expertise in advancing new technologies and industries, we’re subsidizing a global oil company approximately $1.6 billion to produce ethylene for petrochemical-based plastics. The Pittsburgh region still ranks as having some of the worst air quality in the nation, and this plant will likely eliminate nearly 50 years of progress made toward air-quality and environmental cleanup from our past industrial activities. From an economic development standpoint, an investment of $1.6 billion in cultivating emerging companies and sustainable industries could have a far greater impact both environmentally and economically for Pennsylvania.
Why is it important to you, as one leading a sustainable business startup, to dedicate time to the CEOs for Sustainability executive council?
Sustainability has a different meaning and impact across the wide spectrum of businesses; participating in the council allows us to learn what other organizations are working on and take part in the larger conversation shaping sustainability in the region. Optimus, as a small manufacturer, has, admittedly, more flexibility for creating a more aggressive vision of sustainability than a larger, more established legacy manufacturer. Helping a workforce of 1,000 reduce their carbon footprint by 10% has a quantifiably larger impact than a smaller team’s reduction by 50% — but it’s typically these smaller more aggressive entities that drive the larger, less nimble, companies to set targets to begin with. We hope that our input can help make an impact and that ultimately, we are helping create a unified effort toward moving forward the vision of a scalable sustainable future.
What might leaders be surprised to know about Optimus Technologies’ sustainability challenges or opportunities?
Fuel costs account for roughly 35% of all operating costs for a commercial trucking fleet. Even for fleets that are environmentally focused, sustainability first and foremost refers to economic sustainability of their business operation. We enable commercial trucks to operate on 100% biodiesel — a fuel produced from a wide range of feedstocks like recycled cooking oil, soybean oil and animal fats that is renewable and reduces carbon emissions by approximately 80%. The real driver for adoption though is the opportunity for biodiesel to reduce fleet fuel costs by 10–15%. By focusing on the economics and demonstrating the return on investment that can be achieved, we can help the commercial trucking industry embrace sustainability — both economic and environmental. With that said, one of the core challenges we face is the sheer magnitude of the inertia that exists; the trucking industry in the U.S. consumes roughly 40 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually. Biodiesel can be dispensed from traditional diesel pumps and that enables us to capitalize on the existing infrastructure, but gaining critical mass is a real challenge. In addition to working to commercialize a new technology, we face all the same challenges as traditional businesses so we spend a lot of time thinking about how we get to scale and in doing so, how we can build a business that represents our core values. Slowly but surely, we’ll chip away at that 40 billion gallons and in that, lies a lot of opportunity.