Colorado State University professor Bryan Willson kicked off the final President’s Community Lecture Series event of 2014 with an anecdote about a recent trip to England.
In April, Willson attended the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford.
He and a colleague sat it on a session entitled “Beyond the Pioneer: From Building Firms to Building Markets.” The topic appealed to Willson, who founded CSU’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory and Envirofit, now the largest supplier of clean-burning indoor cookstoves to the developing world.
The presenters highlighted a company that successfully moved an idea from the laboratory to the marketplace. Willson was duly impressed. He’d done the same and knew how hard that can be.
“I was impressed with how prescient the founders of this company were, how much foresight they had and how clean it all was,” Willson told the 100-plus people gathered Tuesday at the Powerhouse Energy Campus.
Eventually, he realized the presenters were talking about Envirofit and found in humor in how it was portrayed.
“It was much more of a messy street fight. All of this was,” he said, gesturing to the new, 65,000- square-foot addition that transformed the North College Avenue building from simply the Engines Lab to the Powerhouse .
The tale set the tone for the rest of Willson’s talk.
He prepped the audience that his presentation would resemble the 1970s cult book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” saying he would talk and then stop to go off on tangents.
“I am calling this talk ‘Zen and the Art of Engines, Algae and Third World Cookstoves,’ ” Willson said.
From there, he walked the audience through his career at CSU, humorously recapping the trials and tribulations he faced as a researcher and entrepreneur.
He described his relationship with Maurice Albertson and Byron Winn, two College of Engineering faculty who mentored him; how the old city power plant became the Engines aLab; the research that led him and two former students to launch Envirofit; and the status of Solix Biosystems, his second startup, which is dedicated to photosynthetic microalgae
By the end of the hour-long talk, many in the audience commented on how much they learned – including his daughter.
“It was incredible to hear about my dad’s accomplishments in such a large-picture way,” said Mary Willson, a junior at CSU. “Throughout the years and especially as a student at CSU, I have been knowledgeable and educated about his work, but his projects in the early days were not as known to me.”
Here are some things you may not know about Bryan Willson and his research:
He wasn’t hired to conduct energy research.
Willson was hired to teach design. When he joined CSU in 1988, energy research was considered a dead end. Oil was $18 a barrel and gasoline retailed for less than $1 a gallon. No one was funding energy research.
First, there was a building…..
Willson approached the City of Fort Collins in the early 1990s about using its old, dilapidated coal-fired power plant on North College Avenue. He and his students needed a place to work on the natural gas-fueled vehicles they were developing for national competitions.
When they moved in, there was no heat, no bathrooms and barely any electricity. Half of the building’s 3,500 windows were broken and they wore coats to keep warm during the winter. A few years later, Willson received a grant from the state historical society, and they were able to replace the broken windows, add a bathroom and more power.
…then came the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory.
Willson began working on engines for the natural gas industry to expand his team’s research and to help pay the bills. The massive engines are used to compress natural gas before it is transferred across the country via miles of pipeline. Over the years, CSU professors and students developed and tested new equipment to dramatically reduce pollution from these giant engines – the equivalent of removing 150 million vehicles and their exhaust from the road.
Snowmobiles and two-stroke engines
In 2000, Willson and his team started tackling snowmobiles and their two-stroke engines, which generate large amounts of pollution. They adapted a technology from the natural gas industry to build cleaner-running snowmobiles. The team replaced the traditional carburetor with direct, in-cylinder fuel injection and demonstrated what was at the time, the cleanest-running snowmobile ever built.
Willson and his students shifted focus to improving the two-stroke engines used in pedicabs and other forms of transportation in the developing world.
Cookstoves came later
Willson and his students launched Envirofit to sell kits to retrofit two-stroke engines. They even demonstrated their work during an event in the Philippines for Miss Clean Air World.
They later realized it made more financial sense to produce and sell clean-burning cookstoves for people in the developing world. Envirofit upended the conventional model of having villagers make their own cookstoves and focused on producing quality cookstoves that could be distributed to different parts of the world. They advertised on buses, elephants and even created a Bollywood movie to market the stoves in India.
From biofuel to supplements
Willson helped launch Solix, another startup company in the 2000s. The company built a plant outside Durango where it grew algae and harvested oil to be converted into a biofuel. But it couldn’t compete with petroleum-based oil. Today, the company primarily sells the omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrients reaped from algae as ingredients for nutritional supplements, foods and beverages.
President’s Community Lecture Series
Colorado State University created the lecture series earlier this year as a gift to Fort Collins to celebrate the city’s 150th birthday.
Bryan Willson, a CSU professor and co-director of the Energy Institute, was the fourth presenter in the series.
Previous speakers in the series have been Lori Peek, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis; and University Distinguished Professors Diana Wall, world-renowned soil ecologist and director of the School for Global Environmental Sustainability, and Dr. Stephen Withrow, veterinarian and founder of the Flint Animal Cancer Center.