A Conversation With Riggs Eckelberry, CEO of OriginOil

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Eckelberry-Post.jpg The CEO and president of OriginOil, Riggs Eckelberry is leading the charge to extract oil from algae to use in commercial fuels as a viable replacement for petroleum. He started the company in 2007 after helping to invent its breakthrough technology, but he's no stranger to corporate America. Before founding OriginOil, Eckelberry worked as president and COO of CyberDefender Corporation, founder and president of TechTransform, and general manager of Panda Software. Earlier this year, he was named to the advisory board of the National Algae Association.

Here, Eckelberry discusses how taking time off to go ski-bumming at the age of 40, a year spent working in the film industry, and even a brief stint as a wine importer have made him a better CEO; why it is that Australia deserves to be recognized in a sustainability Hall of Fame; and why he's amazed to see people ordering wild salmon because they object to salmon farming practices.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I'm working on algae, which is the original oil. Now we're making it again.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

We're now deploying leapfrog technology to create real sustainability. It's no longer a catchword.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

How much it depends on checking, and rechecking, and rechecking again.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

The role that food-based fuels are playing in food prices. I just saw that sugar prices are up 85 percent this harvest. This idea of burning what we eat is going to create a mainstream backlash against all renewables -- it already is, and it's going to stain all of us if we don't move quickly.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

I'm amazed to see people ordering wild salmon because they object to salmon farming practices. I understand why, but it's better to do without, because wild salmon is already endangered. Meanwhile, farming practices are improving greatly.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I've been off track so many times in my life that I ended up thinking of it as a strength. I mean, what am I going to make of my year in film production, or how I went ski-bumming at the age of 40, or my stint as a wine importer? These and many other things were probably a waste of time, but they made me a far better person today -- and a better CEO, too.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

I have great respect for the team at Solazyme, who have worked with great consistency to scale up algae production. Larry Sirmans was the CTO at Australia's MBD Energy who had the vision and energy to force us out of the lab and into the field. And I think all of Australia is tops for aggressively scaling up industrial algae production. They are leading the New Petroleum revolution.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

As a teen I was all set to go into film, even got into NYU film school. But being a sixties kid, I got deeply involved in the non-profit space, and then high tech claimed me for what it could do. Now my young teen son is an editor, and I'm in there with him, shooting and advising. He has a site, eckelberryfilms.com. All in all, a fine outcome.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Exchange on Blackberry lets me run my company in real time, wherever I am. That, combined with my hot ultra light Thinkpad X220, makes me very, very dangerous.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Queen playing "Under Pressure" live with David Bowie. That seems about right.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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