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HOW I MADE IT: JASON PYLE

Using algae to make fuels, he's thinking beyond pond scum

Sapphire Energy CEO Jason Pyle, who has had a hand in start-ups in medical engineering and biotechnology, now is developing algae-based fuels that have already propelled planes and a car.

October 04, 2009|Tiffany Hsu

The gig: Chief executive of Sapphire Energy Inc., a San Diego biofuels company that develops algae-based fuel that has been used experimentally to power airplanes and, recently, a car that was driven across the country. The serial entrepreneur has had a hand in starting several companies in industries including medical engineering and biotechnology.

Sapphire hopes to produce 1 million gallons of algae diesel and jet fuel each year in the next two years, and up to a massive 1 billion gallons of fuel a year by 2025.

A company born of conflict: Sapphire Energy grew out of a dinner argument in 2006, where Pyle contended that biofuels, especially corn ethanol, were a flawed fad that could never be developed on a commercial scale. But ever the problem solver, he, along with partners Kristina Burow and Nathaniel David, began looking into alternative fuel sources.

The company's name, which wasn't intended to be permanent, was chosen as Pyle and his partners debated the merits of different engagement-ring gems while attending a wedding. Sapphire Energy -- "emerald" was too cheesy -- was launched in May 2007, and it has raised more than $150 million from investors, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates' Cascade Investments. It has 140 employees in San Diego, Orange County and New Mexico.

Like a rolling stone: Pyle, who wanted as a boy to be a paleontologist, was raised by his construction engineer father in Austin, Texas. "I didn't know what to do with myself," he said.

When he was 15, Pyle flipped burgers at McDonald's, then poured concrete and put up drywall the next year. He graduated from high school in 1989 and spent four years as an Army paratrooper in Panama.

Education: Pyle took advantage of the GI Bill and studied optical engineering and physics at the University of Arizona, where he graduated as valedictorian. Inspired by an internship at the Mayo Clinic, he entered Stanford University medical school and emerged eight years later with a PhD in molecular and cellular physiology, a medical degree, and the firm conviction that he did not want to become a doctor.

He had co-founded his first company, medical device firm Pria Diagnostics, while in school. The firm had already landed a major corporate contract by the time Pyle graduated.

Near the breaking point: Pyle recalled some dark days as well. He was involved with a business proposal in the early 2000s but was unable to lure venture capitalists. "Maybe it's just not worth trying to change the world when no one wants to listen to you, unless you're pitching a social media network," he remembers complaining after the 15th failed presentation. "It was one of those head-in-hand moments." After 21 rejections in 13 months, he moved on. The original idea eventually picked up funding.

A true nerd: An avid reader of science fiction, fantasy and spy novels whose favorite book is Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Pyle won't rule out a post-retirement career as an author. He is also a fan of multiplayer video games such as World of Warcraft and enjoys racing sailboats.

Personal: Pyle, 38, and his anesthesiologist wife recently welcomed their first child, a daughter. The family lives in San Diego, though Pyle hopes to someday return to Texas. His home state, he said, instilled in him a sense of determination and may also have influenced his penchant for Caiman alligator cowboy boots.

Man with a plan: Running a company like Sapphire in a business environment that will soon be dominated by engineering and biotechnology won't be easy, Pyle said.

"This isn't the 1990s anymore," he said. "You can't just get lucky, found a company and accidentally make a lot of money. You have to be laser-focused and relentless with an incredibly clear plan. And at one point, I didn't have any of those skills."

Next up: Having already produced jet fuel and gasoline using algae, the company is looking for the final point in the "triple crown" -- algae diesel, Pyle said. He plans to stick with Sapphire all the way into the Fortune 100. "The vision we're trying to take on is a lifelong mission."

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tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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