Agilyx co-founders Chris Ulum, left, and Kevin DeWhitt display sacks of plastic feedstock at the company's production facility. Agilyx has converted 2 million pounds of plastic into 250,000 gallons of crude oil.
Photo by Katharine Kimball
One night several years ago, Chris Ulum was driving to the Oregon Coast with his 10-year-old daughter when she asked him to explain the project that had been keeping him so busy on evenings and weekends. “So I finally explained it to her,” he says, “and at 10 years old she completely grasped the business opportunity and the value proposition. You don’t have to convince anyone of our dependency on fossil crude oil and the merits of having a drop-in replacement for fossil crude. And if you can get that from a garbage stream that’s already being picked up and handled by someone, then it’s not hard to sell the supply demand aspect of the proposition. It just makes intuitive sense.”
By that point, Ulum’s business partner, chemist Kevin DeWhitt, had figured out the technical challenges involved in converting waste plastic to crude synthetic oil. But before DeWhitt could scale the concept to produce significant amounts of oil, he needed money, and to get money he needed a business plan. That was Ulum’s job: to turn a great idea with solid science behind it into a great business.
Ulum, a 48-year-old graduate of Oregon State University with an MBA from Duke University, met DeWhitt through a colleague at Sun Microsystems in November 2004. Their weekend and evening meetings grew more common throughout 2005 and ultimately convinced Ulum to take the plunge and leave his job to launch a startup. They originally called the business Plas2Fuel, and have since renamed it Agilyx (pronounced “Agile-ix”). Recession notwithstanding, they have raised more than $26 million and formed partnerships with key players in the oil and waste industries while building a 35-person company poised to grow into a market leader.
The first step was to prove that their system worked. They accomplished that fairly quickly, raising $300,000 in seed capital in April 2006, building a prototype system at an industrial property in Tigard and extracting their first batch of crude oil from waste plastic several months later. That quick success enabled them to raise more money on better terms.