IGNACIO, Colo. — An unusual experiment featuring equal parts science, environmental optimism and Native American capitalist ambition is unfolding here on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in southwest Colorado.
With the twin goals of making fuel from algae and reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases, a start-up company co-founded by a Colorado State University professor recently introduced a strain of algae that loves carbon dioxide into a water tank next to a natural gas processing plant. The water is already green-tinged with life.
The Southern Utes, one of the nation’s wealthiest American Indian communities thanks to its energy and real-estate investments, is a major investor in the professor’s company. It hopes to gain a toehold in what tribal leaders believe could be the next billion-dollar energy boom.
But from the tribe’s perspective, the business model here is about more than business. “It’s a marriage of an older way of thinking into a modern time,” said the tribe’s chairman, Matthew J. Box, referring to the interplay of environmental consciousness and investment opportunity around algae.
The tribe, whose reservation sits atop one of the world’s richest fields of natural gas from coal-bed methane, had to surmount many hurdles to find an alternative energy idea it considered suitable.
For example, any project that would displace land used for growing food was tossed out for philosophical reasons: the Southern Utes’ belief that energy and food should not compete in a world where people still starve. That eliminated discussion of corn-based ethanol.
And whatever was chosen had to be at least technically feasible, if not immediately profitable.
The 1,400-member tribe also has a long history of herbal medicine use that made growing algae for fuel appealing, Mr. Box said. “It reminded people of herbs that are helpful here, like bear root, which is harvested in the mountains,” he said.
The Colorado State professor, Bryan Willson, who teaches mechanical engineering and is a co-founder of the three-year-old company Solix Biofuels, said working with the Southern Utes on their land afforded his company advantages that would have been impossible in mainstream corporate America. The tribe contributed almost one-third of the $20 million in capital raised by Solix, free use of land and more than $1 million in equipment.
“If you’re going with strict venture capital, they’re looking for a blistering return on capital in three to five years,” Dr. Willson said. “The Utes have a very long economic view. They’re making decisions now for future generations as opposed to the next quarter, and that is just fundamentally different.”
But the tale of any start-up is written between the margins of inspiration and hard-edged reality.