The path to zero waste.
Sacramento Business Journal‘s Mark Anderson writes about CEO Mike G Hart and his many business ventures. In the article titled “Mike Hart: An entrepreneur of many trades”, Anderson explores Mike’s passion for sustainability and economic development in Davis. The text of the article can be read below. To read more about business in the greater Sacramento region and an extra Q&A with Mike Hart, read the article on the Sacramento Business Journal Website.
For entrepreneur Mike Hart, one venture always seems to lead to another. But the founder and CEO of Davis-based Sierra Energynever seems to leave his previous ventures behind. For 23 years, Hart has been CEO of Sierra Railroad Co., which operates 140 miles of rail lines in Northern California. He’s also developing a co-working space in Davis called Area 52 in the building that previously housed flying car company Moller International. And last month, Hart announced plans to develop commercial property in the proposed 47-acre Nishi Gateway innovation center, also in Davis.
“It may seem like I’m a squirrel collecting all kinds of random nuts, but there is a larger objective in mind,” he said. “We’re working to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses. It is something we can do something about, and we should do something about.”
Hart first developed an interest in sustainability when in high school during the energy crisis of the 1970s. But after graduating from University of California Davis in 1985, he worked as a systems analyst on sophisticated weapons systems for the military. He later wrote software programs to analyze weapons systems. After the Cold War ended in 1991, Hart started his entrepreneurial career, focusing on sustainability. He owned a 150,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse in Colorado, growing organic cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. Hart then used his knowledge of hydroponics and military systems to land a consulting gig with NASA, advising on deep-space crew missions.
Hart got into the railroad business in 1993. He first tried to buy a freight railroad between Santa Cruz and San Jose to haul sand. Although that effort was blocked by political opposition, the investor group he assembled bought the Sierra Railroad instead. Hart became CEO of the railroad, which operates the Skunk Train that carries 60,000 passengers a year on scenic trips through the Mendocino County redwoods. It also operates the Sacramento RiverTrain and Sierra DinnerTrain. As CEO of the railroad, Hart has spent years searching for an alternative fuel to replace the petroleum diesel that runs his locomotives. That search resulted in the startup of Sierra Energy, which he launched in 2004 to bring waste gasification technology to market.
Chris Soderquist, founder of Davis-based solar energy firm Repower Yolo, describes Hart as one of relatively few local leaders who are taking decisive action to develop the entrepreneurial economy. “A lot of people talk about entrepreneurship and puff out their chests promoting it, but they don’t actually take any risk,” Soderquist said. “Then there’s Mike. He’s the exact opposite. He’s not afraid of risk, and he’s just an ass-kicker. He’s got a get-it-done attitude.”
Hart first got involved with waste gasification when judging a Big Bang business plan competition at UC Davis in 2003. He heard a pitch involving technology developed at Kaiser Steel for waste gasification that cleanly and efficiently converts waste into fuel. Hart launched Sierra Energy to bring that technology to market. The company’s FastOx gasifier technology uses pure oxygen and steam in a blast furnace to create a 4,000-degree chemical reaction. It breaks down waste materials, releasing carbon monoxide and hydrogen that then can be converted into synthetic gas or clean diesel fuel.
The technology has the potential to cut municipal waste streams and to allow old landfills to be used as fuel resources. Landfills are huge contributors of greenhouse gasses, Hart said. After testing the technology on models of several sizes, Sierra Energy is now building a commercial-scale gasification plant for the U.S. Army at Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County. That unit will be able to convert 10 tons of waste per day into clean alternative fuels.
The technology works, said Gary Simon, chairman of CleanStart, a local networking group for clean energy companies. “I commend him for his persistence,” Simon said. “He tried every which way to make it work as a business, and he has been a very clever businessman.”
A Davis alum who owns a Davis-based company, Hart sees potential for ventures coming out of UC Davis that are focused on greenhouse gas reduction. But he also sees large obstacles to developing those ventures locally. “People talk about UC Davis being a research and development campus,” he said. “But it’s not true. Davis is all ’R’ and there is no ‘D.’” Davis is home to few development-stage companies because it has little space for startups or for companies to grow, Hart said. “This isn’t really complicated stuff. You have to have some places for people to work, and you have places for investors who can drive up in their Tesla and write checks,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sierra Energy is testing a business model that Hart hopes will help the company’s technology be adopted on a vast scale. Rather than build its own gasification plants, Sierra Energy is licensing technology rights to partners who will build them. For $10,000, a licensee can have exclusive territorial rights to the FastOx technology in a county. “I’m not trying to get rich on it. I want to see 50,000 people get rich using it,” he said. The company is experimenting with its licensing program in Wyoming, Hart said, starting in a small state to work out any bugs. Hart said he hopes the pricing is low enough to attract many licensees. “You’re not going to change the planet if you only build two plants,” he said.