It’s only midafternoon on a Wednesday and Dave Bushong, Senior Vice President of Research for POET, has already met with scientists from global biosciences company DSM and had a meeting with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It’s just a typical day for the head of POET’s Research division.
Bushong provides strategic direction to POET’s research team. The team develops innovation from the lab bench through pilot plant trials and on to commercialization.
What drives Bushong, who started at POET in 2006, is the potential for even further innovation at POET.
“Every week there are new challenges and new opportunities. I think the opportunities this company has before it far exceed the opportunities we saw five years ago because we’ve had so much success,” he says. “From the research side, we get approached by companies that want to collaborate with us and do business with us or bring opportunities to us. It’s exciting to see all those opportunities, let alone what we come up with ourselves.”
POET team members commend Bushong for taking a visionary approach to guiding the company’s research endeavors, while making sure that the projects they do sink their teeth into are worth their merit.
Deb Roth, Plant Manager at POET Research Center (PRC) in Scotland, S.D., first met Bushong in 2006 when he started there as General Manager.
“It didn’t take long to get to know Dave with his super-friendly nature. He always has a smile, something good to say and easily bursts into that happy laughter, which causes a contagious smile and laughter in those around him.”
As General Manager at PRC, Bushong worked on notable projects including Project BELL, POET’s first cellulosic pilot plant. Project BELL laid the groundwork for Project LIBERTY, POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels’ commercial-scale cellulosic biofuels facility that opened in 2014 in Emmetsburg, Iowa.
Despite the challenges of building Project BELL — they had to tear it apart and build it again — Bushong says what kept him and others committed to the project was believing in the opportunity and global potential for cellulosic biofuels.
“It’s hard to imagine a better fuel when you think about it. You take all these waste materials that are decaying on the surface or going to landfills, and you use those to make a fuel. It’s such a terrific opportunity.”
Steve Bly, Biochemical Manager, has worked for Bushong for most of his career at POET. He remembers that Bushong took time to send him a welcome letter prior to starting as a Process Development Engineer for Project BELL in December 2008. “I felt welcomed even before I started.”
Bly says that Bushong continues to take time to recognize POET team members for their efforts. “It was common for him to recognize anybody on the team, from maintenance to operations.”
Bly recalls working long days at Project BELL and how Bushong led by example both there and at PRC.
“He would be part of the oncall schedule with the engineers and managers — he shared in that responsibility. If the plant wasn’t running and we were trying to get it started up, he’d stay late with us and we’d all work to get it running,” Bly says.
Beginning at POET: ‘It took a little persistence’
Bushong began his career in chemical engineering at Michiganbased Dow Chemical. He worked in inorganic chemicals, and then moved into agricultural chemicals and consumer product chemicals. It was after leaving Dow Chemicals, when he worked at Fujifilm, that Bushong knew the renewable energy sector needed to be his next step.
That realization came from “just looking at the price of oil at the time and how leveraged the U.S. was in foreign oil. It was a good thing for this country to work on energy independence, and especially renewable energy,” he says. After moving back to South Dakota with his family in 2001 — his hometown is Tulare, in Spink County — he set his sights on POET, which was then Broin Companies. After applying and getting initially turned down for a position in Sioux Falls, he applied for and was hired for the Scotland opportunity. “It took a little persistence, but I was willing to wait it out,” he says.
As General Manager at Scotland, Bushong focused on innovation and creating new research opportunities. Bushong saw early on that the promise of the Scotland plant wasn’t solely in its production capacity — it was too small and had too many years on it, he says — but in the research that could be developed there.
Early on, the research team drew on its ingenuity.
“Research is expensive, so we always try to do things as cheap as possible,” Bushong says. “We were always trying to find ways to save money. At one point in time, we needed a mixer and found out that there was one on the Broin farm. We actually went to the Broin farm [in Wanamingo, Minn.] to get it.”
Quantity, Quality of Research at POET has Changed
While a lot has changed since those early days, the mindset of innovation has been a constant thread through POET’s research, Bushong says.
Bushong has seen the quantity and quality of research at POET transform. The capital investments also have increased. “We’ve done a lot of research investment. That’s really a credit to Jeff Broin’s vision.”
“When I look at it, we have a much more cohesive approach — more cooperation on what we want to be working on. Not only has the quantity of our research grown, but I think the quality has, too, as we’ve gained experience.”
Bushong moved from his role as General Manager at PRC to head of POET’s Research division in December 2015. Bushong’s focus has been on making sure the team’s research projects add value. This direction comes across clearly to team members like Dave Carlson, Principal Engineer for POET Research. Carlson has worked at POET since 2004 and has worked for Bushong since 2007.
“A tagline he’s used a lot since he took over POET Research Institute is all about generating value. How do we generate value for POET? He’s done a good job of trimming away the extra projects that don’t add as much immediate direct value for POET,” Carlson says.
Roth says Bushong has a strong work ethic in leading POET Research. “Dave is also a visionary in driving the change in POET Research’s structure, focusing the team on shorter-term goals. This work has also shown his dedication and passion for the company.”
Bly commented that Bushong takes a practical approach in his work. “I always found that you can relate to him. Having that hard work ethic from growing up on a farm, and that common sense approach to problem solving fits well with POET’s origins and how we continue to operate.”
Bushong likes that POET Research’s work can be realized at the commercial level, not confined to the pages of a textbook.
“What I like about POET Research is that it’s very applied. We are a very applied research organization. We’re not looking at technology to license or write papers on. We’re looking at technology to take to our plants and c o m m e r c i a l i z e . That’s a good fit, and I find it exciting and rewarding.”
In his work, Bushong emphasizes the importance of teamwork within not only POET Research but also POET’s other business divisions.
Teamwork and tenacity have continued to make the team successful, he says.
“If you look at tenacity from a POET standpoint, the research team has a lot of tenacity. PRC certainly does in embracing change. You look at LIBERTY and the team there — you can’t get a more tenacious team. The plants with the new yeast product we’ve rolled out and some of the difficulties they’ve encountered to fight through this. We’re just a tenacious organization. It’s served us very well.”