May 11, 2011
A Conversation With CMO Of The Year Wesley Bolsen, Coskata Inc.
>> Company Description: Coskata Inc. is a biology-based renewable energy company with a platform technology that enables the low-cost production of biofuels and chemicals, from virtually any carbonaceous material. Using anaerobic microorganisms and innovative bioreactor designs, we create and enable additional renewable energy resources worldwide. Coskata was founded in 2006 by leading renewable energy investors and entrepreneurs including Khosla Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures, and GreatPoint Ventures. Coskata has the ability to turn a wide variety of materials -- such as wood biomass, agricultural waste, and even garbage -- into fuel, at costs that will directly compete with gasoline. The technology is expected to help reduce the global dependence on oil and reduce greenhouse gases while creating millions of new jobs in urban and rural areas around the globe.
>> Highlights: In 2010 Coskata closed another successful round of financing, which included financial support from TOTAL, one of the 5 largest integrated oil and gas companies in the world. The oil and gas major joins a cadre of other prominent investors including the largest private equity fund in the world, The Blackstone Group, General Motors, and Kohsla Ventures. Coskata's strategic positioning as a nascent biofuels company has attracted new blue chip investors, support from local and federal government officials, positive media coverage in some of the country's leading publications, and recognition from international groups, such as the World Economic Forum. By the end of 2010, Coskata was positioned to receive a letter of intent from the United States Department of Agriculture for a $250 million loan guarantee, the largest biofuel loan guarantee in US History. This will help to build the world's first commercially viable, non-grain-based biofuel facility, outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
>> The Conversation:
CMOJ: As one of Coskata's first executives, it seems that much of your role over the past five years has been devoted to positioning the company to investors. How has your background as a former CFO prepared you for that effort, and what advice would you provide similarly positioned marketing leaders that don't have the benefit of a financial background?
WB: I look at my role as helping to maintain Coskata as a thought leader in the industry. We have some of the best scientists and engineers in the country working on our breakthrough technology. Most CMOs come up through a traditional marketing background where they don't need to have an appreciation or full understanding of how the CFO drives value for the enterprise. To them, the CFO simply approves or denies budgets and looks to cut costs at every corner. My past experience has helped me to develop a strong relationship with our CFO, and set a vision and strategy for the marketing department that is in lockstep with finance. My job is to paint a picture for investors, government agencies, and strategic partners about what is possible and why Coskata is best positioned to deliver.
This job is about building relationships at a deep level. During the early years of Coskata, I also led the global business development team, where relationships are critical. I have led Coskata's global government affairs team from the start of the company up until today as well. This is about relationships and about helping presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs see what this technology has the ability to do. Naturally, they will want to invest, become a partner, or at least learn more when they understand the capability of the technology.
I stay very involved with biofuel industry associations, having been either the chairman or a member of the board for three of the four leading biofuel associations in the United States. This provides me the opportunity to speak at a much higher level about the future of biofuels that goes well beyond my role at Coskata.
CMOJ: You've utilized digital and video content to help the company communicate to its stakeholders -- from a corporate video overview including interviews with company executives, to digital tours of the demonstration plant, to animation of your proprietary "feedstock-to-ethanol" process. Why such an emphasis on this type of content, and how do you track its effectiveness?
WB: Understanding the target audience is critical in determining the type of media that should be utilized. With where the company is positioned today, we are not trying to get the general public to purchase our product. We are talking about building biofuel refineries worth potentially half a billion dollars. "Selling" this idea is a long process that may take years, and it starts with people understanding the vision for what is possible.
The Coskata technology is difficult to understand from a microbiology level, so we knew early on that in order to relate to our key stakeholders, we'd have to "simplify" the process as much as possible. We needed to be able to show what sets Coskata apart from others in a crowded biofuels space, that the company's technology is ready for commercial scale, and that it is ready to be licensed by the largest oil companies and partners around the globe. Demonstrating this visually was by far the best approach. We have no marketing booths, no TV ads or media mailers. We track the effectiveness of our digital media through new business leads and an ongoing qualitative analysis of our key stakeholders' level of understanding of our company's technology and value propositions. Our digital assets have been unbelievably successful in helping attract new investors, business development leads, and relationships with federal and state governments.
CMOJ: You meet with Coskata's Board of Directors to update them on marketing, communications, and government affairs activities. Tell us more about those interactions -- how do you prepare for those meetings and what kinds of information do you bring to the table?
WB: The interactions with the Board of Directors comes down to a well crafted plan of "drum beats" throughout the year. We have a plan for what Coskata will be accomplishing, with closing deals, government loan guarantees, or breakthough announcements about the Coskata technology. The Board is genuinely interested in the timing of these announcements. These are some of the largest financial players around the globe, and they love to see that their investment in Coskata is continuing to increase in value, and produce results.
The briefings on government policy and interactions that I have with the White House, Congress, and industry associations bring lively discussion to the table. Energy, and specifically biofuels, is a market that is closely tied to government policy and the incentives that can result play a large role in driving bottom-line results and long-term shareholder value. The Chief Marketing Officer role at Coskata is integrally tied to Government Affairs because biofuels is generally a government-mandated market around the globe. Policy decisions affect the demand for our product and the incentives we receive for building facilities and selling renewable fuels. Our board is often interested in understanding not only market interests but also how government policy is changing the equation, sometimes on a monthly basis.
CMOJ: Describe the relationship you have with your CEO, Bill Roe. What are his expectations of you and your team -- and how are those expectations measured?
WB: Bill Roe and I are both colleagues and friends. It makes a big difference when you thoroughly enjoy coming to work with someone that you trust and respect. As the CEO, he is a thought partner in how to best get a message out. As a great leader, Bill gives me and my team the freedom to get the message out into the industry and work on supporting the whole biofuel industry. He understands that "a rising tide lifts all boats." We don't need to be overly competitive with other companies in the biofuels market. We need to help the industry grow, and then let the strength of the Coskata technology win out in a commodity fuels and chemicals market.
He measures my success by the respect placed on me by industry peers, access I can help to provide to leaders in the industry, government money we attract, the positioning of Coskata as a thought leader in the industry, the progression of the Coskata story in the media, and my department's support of the business development team. Every great leader also has to be an effective manager. I hope that I will be remembered as someone who developed my team members and direct reports to become future leaders within the company.