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Behind the scenes at Blue Marble Biomaterials—or, put another way, the story of a giant metal cow that ate a swamp

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If Blue Marble is the Willy Wonka factory of fragrance and cosmetics, Blue Marble founder James Stephens fits the profile for a Wonka-type character set in Montana. Dressed in loose khakis, a striped polo and hiking boots, he doesn’t have the same eccentric fashion flair as Gene Wilder’s onscreen portrayal, nor the crazed and sinister demeanor. But he does talk fast with exuberant gestures and a big smile, drinks coffee by the pot and sleeps only three or four hours a night. Watching his face you can almost see the synapses firing, the wheels turning in his brain.

Stephens, 32, graduated from the University of Montana in 2002 with degrees in microbiology and medical technology. Like so many science students interested in biotech, he looked around Missoula and saw no future for himself. He moved to Seattle and worked for biotech and pharmaceutical companies by day, but at night he stayed awake pondering his own projects. He wanted to develop a way that expensive remediation projects, such as cleaning up mines and spoiled rivers, could not only help the environment but also be profitable. If he could use algae to clean up metals from a mine and then turn that algae into biodiesel, the incentive for cleanup projects could only increase.

In 2005, Stephens partnered with entrepreneur Kelly Ogilvie to study the possibilities of using algae for energy. They harvested algae from the ocean to turn it into biodiesel. They designed and built a fancy photobioreactor that extracted methanol. They named their business Blue Marble after the famous 1972 photograph from Apollo 17, the first image of Earth from space. “It’s a reminder that our natural resources are finite,” Stephens says.

As it turned out, biodiesel from algae isn’t economical. “There’s no way you’d ever make money with it unless oil hit $1,000 a barrel,” Stephens says. Regulations for harvesting wild algae also made the project prohibitive. By the time the renewable methane market crashed in 2008, the Blue Marble co-founders admitted they’d hit a dead end.

Like a true inventor, however, Stephens wasn’t one to surrender. He ruminated on the matter and came up with a new idea. The process for making biodiesel includes discarding a plethora of chemicals from the biomass. What if it was those very chemicals that were the real key to success? “We were pulling out hydrogen sulfite—all these organic acids and alcohols,” Stephens says. “We thought, ‘That’s worth way more than the methane!’”

Blue Marble decided to head in an entirely different direction.

Bio-based fuels are nothing new; Henry Ford ran his first Model Ts on corn-based ethanol before cheap and abundant petroleum overtook it. But the airline industry has always been petroleum-based, making it dependent on—and vulnerable to—imported oil. Stephens and Ogilvie began exploring the alternative jet fuel market. Competing with fuel prices of about $3.19 a barrel didn’t promise a lot of money, but being on the cutting edge of the jet industry’s turn toward renewables appealed to the company. Stephens and Ogilvie took various feedstocks like wood and brewery grains and began producing organic compounds that could be used in jet biofuel. The main compound they produced was butyl butyrate, an organic fruity-smelling ingredient that’s used in candy.

In late 2008, the duo excitedly presented their new biofuel at a conference. After their presentation, Frank Mars III, of the famous candy bar family and a real-life Willy Wonka of sorts, approached Stephens and Ogilvie. Stephens recalls the moment as the pivotal point for Blue Marble.

“[Mars] came up to us and said, ‘You know that compound butyl butyrate that you’re using?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh yeah. It makes a great jet fuel.’ He said, ‘Yeah, well it’s [also] the smell of blueberries.” Mars asked them if they realized that in the flavor industry that same compound, butyl butrate, can be sold to flavor candy and other foods for $800 a gallon.

“We do now,” Stephens replied excitedly to Mars.

Just like that, Blue Marble discarded the jet fuel idea and began its journey into the specialty chemical niche for fragrance, coloring and high-end oils. In 2011, Blue Marble opened its biorefinery in Missoula and began its first major experimentations.

“The stroke of genius is recognizing the discovery,” Stephens says. “I always joke that I’d rather be lucky than smart any day.”

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