Randy Cortright

Randy Cortright
  • BS Chemical Engineering 1977
  • MS Chemical Engineering 1986

A Farm Boy Grows Up to Grow Biofuels

Randy Cortright pursues a prospect that is both well-grounded and lofty: clean, carbon-neutral energy to supplant fossil fuels that are expensive, not easily available anymore, and dirty.

Cortright founded and leads Virent Energy Systems, of Madison, Wisconsin. The firm is on the cusp of new technology as it develops methods to convert sugars quickly and efficiently into conventional, everyday liquid fuels and chemicals, including gasoline, diesel fuel, and aircraft fuel.

The company is simply transforming the biofuels industry. It can generate twice the net energy per acre as traditional biofuel processes.  Further, the economic and social drivers are now in place—the high price of oil and the global concern about greenhouse gases—to make the shift from fossil fuels to biofuels promising and commercially viable.

“This technology could be a game changer,” Cortright avows.

He earned a bachelor’s in chemical engineering in 1977 and went to work for Universal Oil Products (UOP). He came back to Tech to earn his master’s in 1986, returned to UOP, then pursued a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. He started Virent in 2002.  

“Did it take guts?” he is asked.

“It took not knowing better,” he jests. “My wife told me I was crazy. I had to listen to her. She’s a psychiatrist.”

His nature won out. “I’m willing to take risks. I like to solve problems. I like to make things work.” He has an abiding guideline that was imparted by a math professor at Tech: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. In other words, you go for it a hundred and fifty percent. I live by that now.”

He started with one employee and a warehouse. Now there are 80 employees and a state-of-the art research and development facility.  Plus, he has attracted financial support from Cargill, Honda, and Royal Dutch Shell. “They looked at this and believe it’s going to work.”

Virent has received the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s looks like we’re going to be around a number of years and be able to move this technology forward.”

While at UOP, he traveled to 88 countries in Europe, South America, and Asia, to both design and troubleshoot technology for oil refineries. His wanderings gave him a circumspect nature. “People are the same and also different. You must be accepting of that.”  

As well, he says, the world has better communication, which translates to commonality. “People around the world have common needs and common values. One is a sense of working hard.”

His own work ethic began on the family farm near Albion, Michigan. “Houghton was the first town I ever lived in,” he recalls. This well-traveled man describes the Keweenaw, with its natural beauty and cozy community, as “a unique place in the world.”

As a student, he loved the outdoors, in general, and cross-country skiing, in particular. He was involved in developing both the men’s and women’s programs. He worked on Tech’s trails as well as the Maasto Hiihto trails in Hancock.

His recreational pursuits these days include cycling, running, and skiing. “They have been pretty helpful to me,” he says. “Running a company and developing technology can get confusing. Physical activity keeps the mind clear.”

He recalls his years at Tech. “We studied hard and played hard. That still goes through my life.”

June 2nd, 2010