Small Business & Startups, Sustainability, and Technology

Global business venture may help clear the air

GR man’s smokeless cookstove could save lives and appeal to “preppers” too.

April 26, 2013
| By Pete Daly |
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Global business venture may help clear the air
Patrick Mohney, founder of SEA Biofuels LLC, estimated that 3 billion people worldwide still cook their meals indoors using open fires or wood-burning stoves, producing harmful indoor smoke pollution. Courtesy SEA Biofuels

SEA Biofuels is preparing to introduce its small, smokeless cooking stove using specialized solid fuel to a market that is primarily Third World nations around the globe — plus the “prepper” consumer niche in the U.S.

Patrick Mohney, a Grand Rapids native who founded SEA Biofuels LLC last year in Parkland, Fla., but still lives here, said an estimated 3 billion people in less developed nations still cook their meals indoors on open fires or wood-burning stoves. He added that the World Health Organization estimates as many as 4 million people die each year from lung disease stemming from indoor smoke pollution.

SEA Biofuels — SEA stands for “sustainable, environmental and altruistic” — has developed solid, compressed fuel pellets made of agricultural plant waste and a small steel stove that burns the fuel highly efficiently. The fuel is made in a proprietary process that he will not divulge, which makes it burn hot enough for complete combustion. The patented stove has no moving parts, is 9-by-11 inches and weighs about seven pounds.

Other improvements in small cookstoves for use over open fires have been developed, but Mohney said they often use wood or require a fan for more complete combustion, and the fans are prone to failure.

“There hasn’t been anybody who has (developed) a stove like ours,” said Mohney. “I don’t think it would be exaggerating to say we’ve gone through 50 prototypes.”

Mohney said 50 pounds of SEA Biofuels’ pellets could be sufficient for 100 days of cooking, and the fuel — which the company is having made in the U.S. for shipment to Third World countries — should cost the equivalent of about $13 per month. The stoves would cost the equivalent of about $30, although that price is about $70 in the U.S. Mohney said the higher price here is intended to help subsidize the cost of the stoves in the poor nations.

In Nigeria, according to Mohney, many people cook on kerosene stoves, and the SEA Biofuels smokeless cookstove and its fuel would cost less than kerosene stoves and kerosene. He said it is not enough to offer an alternative smokeless stove and fuel that cost the same as what people are using now; it must cost significantly less in order for them to want it.

Mohney believes the stove will become popular in under-developed nations, and processing plants then will be established in those areas to make the pelletized fuel from agricultural waste such as rice husks, coconut shells, corn stover and bagasse — the crushed, fibrous remnant left over when sugar cane is processed.

The Kiser Industrial Manufacturing Co. in Benton Harbor is making the stoves for SEA Biofuels. Mohney said about 2,000 have been sold so far, mostly in the U.S. to “preppers” who have heard about it word-of-mouth. Preppers are individuals who stockpile supplies and equipment to be prepared in the event of natural disasters or Armageddon. But some people interested in the stove are simply rural dwellers who have experienced long-term power outages that left them without the ability to cook in their homes, he added.

Mohney, 44, grew up in Grand Rapids and served in the U.S. Army after high school, which took him to Haiti and Somalia. In both places, he saw people relying on wood or dried cow dung for their cooking fires, and in some parts of Africa there are few trees left.

“In the tropics, if you cut down the trees, it goes from being a paradise to really being hell on earth,” he said, because of the resulting lack of shade and the ground drying up.

The SEA Biofuels website states that more than 89 percent of all wood harvested in Haiti is by individuals who sell it to consumers for cooking and heating, and more than 95 percent of the poor island nation’s original forest has been destroyed. SEA Biofuels maintains that if 40,000 of its cookstoves were in use there, it would preserve more than 2,000 acres of forest each year and prevent the release of more than 46,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

After military service, Mohney returned to West Michigan and earned a business degree in finance and accounting at GVSU in the late 1990s. In 2009, he was an investment broker at NAI West Michigan.

He is also the founder and president of Corporate Equity Inc., which works in mergers and acquisitions and raising capital for those types of deals. He said almost all of his time now is spent on getting SEA Biofuels up and running, although Corporate Equity is still functioning. His partner in the cook stove venture is John R. Richards II, another Grand Rapidian who works with him at Corporate Equity.

Mohney said SEA Biofuels is a “big change” from the types of businesses he started previously. He said the change came last year when he decided he “wanted to do something more significant with my life.” That was when he learned about the global movement to find an alternative to cooking on smoky fires in undeveloped nations.

According to the SEA Biofuels website, it is a partner of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private initiative led by the United Nations Foundation to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and preserve the environment by creating a thriving global market for clean cooking solutions. The website has a link to a video in which actress Julia Roberts speaks on behalf of the global alliance.

Mohney said SEA Biofuels is a for-profit company, but its mission is to save lives, improve human health and livelihood, and help preserve the global environment.

“Be a blessing to others first,” said Mohney, and a business venture will be repaid with blessings.

SEA Biofuels has two other employees in addition to Mohney and Richards: Anita Katkar and Syagnik “Sy” Banerjee. Banerjee is an assistant professor of mobile interactive marketing at the University of Michigan-Flint, and Katkar is a civil engineer working on an MBA at U-M-Flint. Both are natives of India and familiar with indoor air pollution from cooking fires.

SEA Biofuels turned to online “crowd funding” financing, which by early April had resulted in almost $1,000 worth of donations to the company.

“Tool and die is an expensive proposition and getting ready to manufacture in quantity is expensive, and I’ve been funding this whole deal out of my pocket,” said Mohney, who said he has invested $350,000 of his own money in the company.

“I’m in deeper than I thought I would be, but we’re also done with the investment,” he said.

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