Madison and Beyond: Using new technology to connect Dane County with the world.
Brilliant inventions can change the world, but turning a breakthrough into an everyday reality requires long-term investments. Dr. Randy Cortright, a UW-Madison-educated chemical engineer who co-created a method to transform biomass into a broad suite of fuels and plastics, is committed to taking that path.
In 2002, Cortright founded Virent, a company dedicated to using that invention to replace crude oil. It's an ambitious goal, and the success of the technology is only the first, small step.
"We have built what I consider a world-class R&D facility here in Madison," says Cortright. "Now we've got to do the engineering part of it."
This is called "commercialization" at Virent, and this stage is perhaps the most crucial in the company's own transformation from a small start-up into an enterprise that aims to use plants to produce gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and a variety of chemicals essential in manufacturing plastic.
Virent is already working with Coca-Cola to produce renewable, recyclable plastic bottles. Fabrics will follow, as the company has an eye on supplying clothing manufacturers as well.
"You'll be able to buy a product that is not being generated from oil, but from renewable resources," explains Cortright.
Should the company's method of producing fuels and plastics take off, it will instigate a small but important disruption in the deluge of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere.
Next up is the construction of factories to produce biofuels. Cortright, who grew up on a farm in Michigan, says most will be located around the Midwest to take advantage of the region's agricultural base. These long-term plans reflect the company's commitment to Madison.
"We're developing the technology and providing jobs for people with high technical expertise, and we think that's good for the city," he says.