POET’s Broin thinks bigger with new products, growing nonprofit

March 4, 2019

There would be plenty to keep Jeff Broin busy in his proverbial own backyard if he chose to stay there.

Start with the decision by President Donald Trump last fall to allow year-round E15 fuel sales, a move the CEO of POET has been pushing for a decade.

“It’s critical to improve the farm economy,” Broin said. “E15 has the potential to create another 7 billion gallons of ethanol demand and 2 billion bushels of corn demand.”

Then there’s the ongoing expansion of POET’s ethanol plant footprint, which recently added its largest facility – an expanded plant in north-central Ohio that can produce 160 million gallons of biofuel annually.

There’s also new product development. Broin’s team continues to find ways to replace petroleum-based products with ag-based products. One of them, an asphalt rejuvenator and modifier called JIVE, landed POET a spot on Fast Company’s 2019 list of most innovative companies.

“It’s a product that can be used not only in the U.S. but worldwide,” he said. “The potential market is very, very large.”

Broin increasingly has taken a global view in recent years. Following a family trip to Africa in 2012, he began working philanthropically to support everything from improved farming efforts to education for girls.

It has grown to become Seeds of Change, a multifaceted nonprofit that aims to transform agriculture, education and environmental conditions in developing countries.

“We believe everyone is entitled to quality education, clean air and a reliable food supply,” he said. “We’ve been blessed as a company and a family, and we want to give back and help those who can’t help themselves.”

The year ahead

This promises to be another pivotal year for POET, which generated $8 billion in revenue in 2018 – more than any other business in South Dakota.

The E15 decision from the Trump administration promises to further propel the biofuels industry, which now is limited to selling the 15 percent biofuel blend from September through June.

It’s not final yet, though. Broin predicts millions will be spent to influence the rule during a comment period over the next few months. It’s scheduled to become final at the end of May.

“There is a significant battle going on,” he said. “But we’re hopeful by May 31 we’ll have it. Had the E15 waiver we filed 10 years ago been approved eight years ago, ag would be in good shape today and South Dakota’s economy would as well.”

POET employs about 2,000 people, including about 400 in Sioux Falls. In 2018, it rolled all its plants into one entity, POET Biorefining. It includes 26 plants and “establishes POET for growth, as well as mergers and acquisitions,” Broin said.

The company is still moving forward with its cellulosic plant, called Project Liberty, in Iowa. There are 100 employees working on the concept, which processes feedstock – corncobs, leaves and husk –  so it can be made into biofuel.

“We’ve made tremendous progress, and while the technology isn’t ready for replication today, we have made tremendous strides in making cellulosic biofuels more competitive with gasoline,” Broin said.

The past year also brought multiple new products from POET’s Sioux Falls-based research team, including ProPellet, a unique feed product in pellet form made from POET’s Dakota Gold dried distillers grains.

The JIVE product that received national attention is positioned for a big year too, Broin said.

“We’re projecting sales to quadruple,” he said. “Some of it was sold for pilot projects, which went very well, and there will be larger sales coming from those trials.”

Seeds of Change

Broin’s passion for innovation in agriculture now extends across continents to Africa, where methods established long ago in the U.S. are still new to farmers in places such as Kenya.

His nonprofit Seeds of Change works with the nonprofit Farm Input Promotions Africa to teach rural Kenyans simple, but effective, agriculture approaches.

“It’s all about people,” said Broin’s daughter Miranda, who joined POET in a communications role after graduating last year from SDSU. She helped with Seeds of Change through her college years after visiting Kenya with her parents and two siblings.

“It sounds like a cliche, but it does change you,” she said. “The big thing for all of us were the relationships we made. It’s all about people. My dad noticed the abysmal state that ag was in. There were knee-high stalks of corn around harvest time … so we wanted to do more.”

Broin had seen the same soils grow significantly larger yields in South America.

“I thought, how can the crop be this bad,” he said. “Then, we started to dig in and found some things they were doing drastically wrong.”

The Mission Grow side of Seeds of Change now has helped more than 80,000 farmers in the past four years.

“We significantly raised the yields by 500 to 900 percent in numerous crops, corn in particular, avocado and mango trees,” Broin said. “And we taught them how to vaccinate their chickens, so their flocks have increased ten- to one hundredfold. They’re advancing. They’re seeing success. They’re buying more seed and fertilizer, and they’re eager to do more.”

The approach costs $7 per farmer and after four years is self-sustainable.

This year, Seeds of Change will begin working with an additional 80,000 farmers. The hope is to expand the approach to other developing nations. In almost every such country, 65 percent to 85 percent of the population farms, Broin said.

“If we can revolutionize farming, we can change these countries forever, and they will no longer need our help.”

Seeds of Change also focuses on helping young people, supporting a school for the deaf and a high school for girls in Kenya.

“The outlook for most young girls in Africa is to get pregnant very young, a lot of them are single mothers, and they end up in poverty their whole life,” Broin said. “This gets them from that critical young time in life to adulthood without becoming a single mother.”

The Mission Hope side of Seeds of Change draws employees from POET annually to Kenya, where they work on construction projects supporting the schools.

“It’s neat because we’ve gotten to interact with students who passed through the program a long time ago,” Miranda Broin said. “Everything starts with education, so it gives them a leg up, whether it’s to go on to higher education or a career. And at POET, we have built-in volunteers and people who are so excited about what we’re doing. They take multiple trips to Kenya and are involved in all the fundraisers.”

The final main component of Seeds of Change is Mission Breathe, which helps developing countries transition from cooking fuels such as wood, charcoal and dung to clean-burning biofuels. More people die from smoke inhalation related to cooking in these nations than from diseases such as malaria and typhoid combined, Broin said.

Mission Breathe currently operates in Haiti. The stoves are $20, and more than 10,000 have been distributed.

“We need to make that 1 billion,” Broin said. “There are 3 billion people who cook with charcoal, and it’s affecting their health and deforesting the world.”

Seeds of Change captures the Broin family’s desire to help others, they said.

“Even before we went to Africa, we had wanted to do something,” said Broin’s wife, Tammie, who serves on the board of Seeds of Change.

“We had talked about the idea of teaching a man to fish, and when we went to Africa, we saw that as our opportunity to give back.”

While the family supports several Sioux Falls causes, the foundation and work in Africa have cemented that sense of philanthropy.

“This is something as the kids get older that we can do together,” Tammie Broin said.

They hope to involve other businesses and individuals in supporting Seeds of Change, they said. A newly announced program called Grain for Change allows farmers to give a percentage of the bushels of corn they deliver to POET locations to support agriculture education. Other funds are raised through private donors and events.

“There’s a lot of potential to spur change,” Miranda Broin said. “And it’s simpler than you think.”

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POET’s Broin thinks bigger with new products, growing nonprofit

2019 could be a big year for POET — from promising federal biofuels changes to new product development and a massive effort to change the future for people in need.

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