Making money fighting climate change

  • A California-based spinoff of CogniTek converts agricultural- and forest-product waste into biofuels.

    A California-based spinoff of CogniTek converts agricultural- and forest-product waste into biofuels.

  • An Akron, Ohio-based spinoff of CogniTek works on an industrial waste heat application.

    An Akron, Ohio-based spinoff of CogniTek works on an industrial waste heat application.

Updated 7/16/2021 1:24 PM

Michael Gurin wants to do his part to fight climate change. He also wants to make money.

He knows the two are not mutually exclusive.


"Our mission really is to make sustainability and circular economy profitable while also doing good," he says. "That's really the main thing. It can't be altruistic, and it can't be dependent on subsidies."

Gurin, the CEO of Glenview-based CogniTek, has been working on environmental products since founding the company in 1989 with his brother Brian, who has since left the company.

His work developing his own technology as well as licensing others' work, has resulted in five companies spun off from CogniTek with revenues of about $10 million and about 50 employees.

"A lot of the work that we do is through strategic partnering, so it's really taking the technology, advancing the technology and then having strategic partners, so it's not necessarily heavy on the personnel side," he says.

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The pandemic and associated lockdown didn't slow CogniTek at all. In fact Gurin says CogniTek had "by far our best year."

And though Gurin has enjoyed keeping CogniTek out of the limelight all these years -- "stealth mode," he calls it -- those days are over. Because of the urgency in fighting climate change and the technologies he has available now, Gurin is looking for investors.

"The technologies are at the point where they're ready to scale in a very, very significant way," he says, adding he has had conversations recently with companies in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, all of which are interested in deploying the technologies that CogniTek advanced.

It's at this point he reminds you that this is not just about being a do-gooder.

"The only reason you could scale them up so quickly is because they are actually substantially more profitable than the alternatives," he says.

His technologies no longer need government subsidies to compete with fossil fuels. They have "turned that corner."

He's also hiring, mostly technical jobs but also on the business development side.


"We're not doing basic research," he says. "We're post-basic research. Most of what we're doing is application engineering and development as opposed to fundamental. So we're more the development part than the research part. But we collaborate with, and especially when we license the technology, we work with the various institutions, and they continue to do the research side."

His spinoffs are varied, though consistently pro-environment.

There is the Akron, Ohio-based company that transforms waste heat from industrial processes to produce electricity.

A California-based company converts agricultural- and forest-product waste into biofuels, specialty chemicals and now man-made cellulosic textiles.

Another company works with the CBD industry, transforming hemp waste into composites to serve the automotive, building and consumer product industries.

A recently licensed technology out of Florida State University makes biodegradable and biorenewable plastic called Plastiq that will compete directly with fossil fuel plastics.

"We hope people care about climate change and the environment," Gurin says, "but the reality is, for example on some of these biofuels and the biodegradable plastic, both of these will compete head on with fossil fuels on a price perspective. And so it's actually cost effective.

"There's no premium associated with the products that we're talking about. And that's really key to the technologies that we're working with."

Tech (jobs) talk

American technology companies continued to add employees in May, and the search for new tech talent returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to an analysis by CompTIA, the Downers Grove-based nonprofit association for the information technology industry and workforce.

U.S. technology companies added 10,500 jobs in May, a combination of technical and nontechnical positions, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed. That made six consecutive months of tech sector employment increases and growth by more than 61,000 jobs so far in 2021.

Still, there were many jobs available, as of the May reports. The most in-demand jobs are for software and application developers, IT support specialists, systems engineers and architects, IT project managers and systems analysts, according to CompTIA.

One more thing. The latest employment report showed a loss of 78,000 IT positions, with an unemployment rate for IT occupations of 2.4% in May, about half the national labor market rate of 5.5%.

"The strong employer hiring activity for technology positions coupled with a loss of jobs at the occupation level suggests a disconnect," Tim Herbert, executive vice president for research and market intelligence at CompTIA, said in a news release. "However, it is not uncommon for factors such as hiring timing or an increase in workers seeking new employment opportunities to affect labor market data in the short term."

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