The renewable energy industry was saddened on March 3 by the news of the death of Guido Ghisolfi, Vice Chairman of the Mossi & Ghisolfi group and CEO of Beta Renewables. Mossi & Ghisolfi is a worldwide leader in the bottle-grade PET industry, owner of the world’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, located in Crescentino, Italy, and co-owner of Beta Renewables. Guido worked closely with Novozymes for several years.
Sebastian Soederberg, Novozymes’ Vice President of Biomass Conversion, offers this tribute to a true visionary.
Few people make an unforgettable impression on you, but Guido certainly made one on me and on many others, not least because of his energy and passion for commercializing advanced future-oriented technologies. Once you met him, it was easy to understand how he—along with his father Mr. Vittorio Ghisolfi and his brother Marco—led Mossi & Ghisolfi to become a global organization and a front-runner in the chemical industry. Guido was fascinated by the transformational potential of innovation, both in terms of making the energy and chemical sectors more sustainable, and in terms of growing his family’s business. Guido spearheaded the development of Beta Renewables, by combining an entrepreneurial business sense with a deep understanding of the engineering and chemical industries.
His visionary commitment to the fledgling cellulosic industry was proven by Mossi & Ghisolfi’s investment in the world’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant at Crescentino, Italy.
But visionaries risk being under-appreciated in their own lifetime because they think ‘ahead of the curve’ and many people are skeptical of new ideas. What has always set visionaries apart is their determination to persevere in the face of such resistance. In 1975 when Bill Gates started Microsoft, his idea that someday there would be a computer on every desktop no doubt sounded like a fantasy. Fortunately, Gates knew the importance of thinking long-term, and today computers are everywhere. This kind of persistence is a hallmark of all visionaries, including Thomas Edison, who believed that “Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Guido understood this, and he never gave up. He was a tireless advocate and champion for cellulosic ethanol – in his home country of Italy, in Europe and around the world.
Guido was a shrewd businessman as well as a visionary. With approximately 95% of transport in Europe dependent on oil, the majority of which comes from increasingly unstable regions, the business case for biofuels is clear. The case for biochemicals is equally strong. PET is a polymer resin used to make synthetic containers such as soft drinks bottles, but with sustainability high on the agenda, most large consumer goods companies are looking for renewable alternatives. Coca-Cola, for example, has set a goal that all of its PET-plastic bottles will be made from plant-based sources by 2020. Mossi & Ghisolfi is currently one of the three largest manufacturers of PET plastic bottles globally, but their ultimate goal is to produce and commercialize 100% second generation BioPET.
In order to be viable in the long term, biofuels and biochemicals must be competitive in price compared to petroleum-based products, something that Guido absolutely believed was possible. I believe it too, so it’s fitting that – since 2012 – Novozymes and Beta Renewables have been working in partnership towards this goal. This partnership brings together Novozymes’ market-leading biotech technology and Beta Renewables’ PROESA technology platform, and has led to a substantial reduction in the cost of cellulosic sugars.
The Crescentino plant was the first in the world and in September 2014, GranBio became the first licensee of PROESA technology to build a plant, Bioflex 1 in Brazil. Guido saw these as just the beginning and continued to work across the globe to drive the development of the next wave of cellulosic ethanol plants. His interests included projects currently under development like Fuyang city (China), Sarawak (Malaysia), and Project Alpha (US). He also played a vital role in entering strategic partnerhips with companies including Gevo, Codexis, Genomatica, and Amyris as well as in establishing a bio-plastics science cluster in Rivalta, Italy, which gathers some of the world’s leading researchers in the field.
Speaking at the inauguration of Crescentino, Guido said he very much looked forward to “an exciting journey of establishing an entirely new, and very promising, industry.” He was instrumental in many of the early successes of the cellulosic industry, which makes his untimely passing all the more tragic.
As a visionary, he saw the industry’s potential long before it was fully established, and – like many visionaries – the full extent and importance of his contribution will probably only be appreciated in the future.
The day after Guido’s death, his father Vittorio told employees at the Crescentino plant that he intends to “…finish what Guido started. We will continue. We will honor his memory that way.” As there seems no better way to honor the memory of a true visionary than to make his vision a reality, I couldn’t agree more.