Sewer grease isn't pretty, at least not to most people.
It's rancid and looks gross, and just the thought of its beginnings - it's a food-preparation byproduct that slips down the drain, is intercepted by grease traps, then is vacuumed into trucks - is enough to turn even a cast-iron stomach.
But Emily Landsburg thinks the gunk is "elegant" - a conclusion she has come to over five years as chief executive officer of BlackGold Biofuels, a Center City start-up that has developed patent-pending technology to convert sewer grease into low-carbon biodiesel.
The goal now is to secure funding to support a national rollout of BlackGold's technology. And Landsburg just might be on the path to the green she needs.
At a time when willing investors are as hard to find as a 401(k) statement worth opening, BlackGold and nine other cash-poor fledgling companies are fortuitously positioned.
They have been selected as the inaugural class of GoodCompany Ventures, a business incubator considered unique because it is a nonprofit, is not seeking an equity stake in the for-profit companies it mentors, and is interested only in entrepreneurs who aim to fulfill a social need while making money.
Incorporating social betterment into business objectives is "going to be the next wave after the green revolution," part of an initiative "to move beyond the traditional notion that companies have no value systems," said Jacob Gray, a partner of Murex Investments Inc., an equity fund.
Gray and Joel Steiker, managing director of Murex, co-founded GoodCompany along with Resources for Human Development Inc., a nonprofit innovator in social finance, and 10 other experts in entrepreneurship.
Tomorrow afternoon, Mayor Nutter and Chuck Lacy, former president of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream empire, will headline a ribbon-cutting ceremony at GoodCompany's headquarters at the Navy Yard. The space was donated by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., an incubator sponsor along with Murex, Resources for Human Development, the Wharton School of Business, and Trellist Marketing.
"We thought that they represented a really progressive, unique idea that was entirely consistent with the mayor's philosophy on economic development," John Grady, PIDC senior vice president, said of the agency's decision to play host to the incubator.
The Navy Yard currently houses 100 companies employing 7,000 people and occupying 5.5 million square feet of renovated space. GoodCompany will be an enhancement to the riverside campus' image as a "dynamic, entrepreneurial place," Grady said. "It's a great marriage."
Christopher Bentley, executive director of GoodCompany and one of its founders, has 15 years of operational and financial-management experience, most recently as an independent consultant.
The idea behind the incubator, Bentley said, was to reach those early-stage businesses that are not ripe enough to qualify for the typical outside-investor infusion - about $2 million - but need more than loans of a few thousand dollars from family or friends.
"We're reaching down to an earlier stage," Bentley said, "and finding a way to help guide them up to that next level."
The help will come via a nine-week curriculum that begins Thursday, presented by experts in such areas as designing and pricing, marketing, protecting intellectual property, and determining how social missions factor into the competitive landscape.
GoodCompany's class of 10 - five businesses from the Philadelphia area, two from New York, and one each from Delaware, Western Pennsylvania, and India - will attend lectures on Thursdays and spend Fridays helping one another plot courses to the endgame: securing funding.
The entrepreneurs will get the chance to pitch their business plans to investors at a venture fair in September.
One thing the incubator intends to drive home is the need to manage expectations.
"Ultra-high-net-worth people are still investing in start-ups, but they're demanding better pricing," Gray said. "The heady days of the Internet bubble are not coming back. No one is ever going to get those kind of valuations again."
But a business with a socially responsible mission is likely to capitalize on the type of higher pricing and customer loyalty typically associated with such companies, Gray said, citing Whole Foods Market Inc. as an example.
"The misconception is, the effort you spend on your social mission has a direct inverse relationship to your profitability - that the two are somehow mutually exclusive," Bentley said. "A strong social mission can give you a really good competitive advantage, and it can really enhance your financial statement, as well."
Depending on the results of the maiden class - paid for through cash donations and in-kind contributions with a total value of $250,000 - GoodCompany could ramp up to conducting two or three clinics a year, Bentley said.
But given the lag time inherent in investors' committing to a project, a true measure of success will not be possible for three to six months after the venture fair.
It could be longer, Gray said, "if the economy took another dip for the worst."
If that happens, he said, "our local [investors] can either be along for the ride" or decide to hang onto their money instead.
GoodCompany Venture's Local Prospects
The incubator's 10 participants, selected from more than 50 applicants, include five area businesses:
BlackGold Biofuels, of Center City, which has developed a chemical-conversion process to change sewer grease into biodiesel. That low-carbon fuel is an important advance in the fight against global warming and a problem solver in the wastewater and biofuels industries, said Emily Landsburg, BlackGold's chief executive officer. The company is starting to license its technology and equipment.
BLOX, a partnership between Philadelphia developer/designer/builder Onion Flats L.L.C. and Landmark Building Systems Inc., a modular- building manufacturer in Pottstown. It plans to construct noncombustible (steel- and-concrete) modular multifamily/multiuse buildings that are 10 times more sustainable than typical "green" structures, said Onion Flats' Tim McDonald. He and his brothers Patrick and Johnny, along with family friend Howard Steinberg and Landmark's Ken George Sr., were writing a business plan and finalizing a deal to establish a factory/ research center at the Navy Yard when picked to participate in the GoodCompany incubator.
Cyrus-XP L.L.C., of Havertown, which has developed a computer platform to enable storage and exchange of clinical- and personal-health records for the long-term-care market. President Ashwin Koleth said customers would be able to download the service for free. A per-resident pricing model would be established for maintenance and customization work.
Math Foundations L.L.C., of University City, created by former math teacher Angela McIver to provide math-remediation consulting to schools and job-training programs. McIver said she had developed an assessment tool to improve the quality of students entering the workforce and was "eager to get the software developed."
Partners on the Path, an idea that "has been percolating in my life and in my soul for 20 years," said Jane Hamilton, a psychiatric nurse from Lower Gwynedd, who has been providing consulting services to professional caregivers for 30 years. Her goal now is to go national with a Web site-based program she has developed, "Staying Afloat on the 7 Cs," to help advise nonprofessional caregivers, such as spouses and children of the ill or dying.