When Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty committed his state to using bioscience-based business to increase its economic competitiveness and reduce its dependence on foreign oil, he didn’t have to look very far.
In 2004, Pawlenty asked Dale Walhstrom to head the BioBusiness Alliance, a non-profit organization that works with businesses, state and local governments, and the health care industry to apply the latest technology to solve economic growth problems. The position allows Wahlstrom to use all of his experience in support of a cause that is very personal to him.
“I have a lot of confidence in this state and a deep, personal commitment to this region,” he said. “I’ve been blessed throughout my career. I have traveled extensively for close to 30 years internationally but there’s something about this upper Midwest region that is special. I felt a strong need to try to help and take what I’ve learned over the years and pass it on.”
Bioscience is the study of the structure and behavior of living organisms. It covers everything from genetically modified crops to ethanol to pharmaceuticals to the use of agricultural and animal refuse as fuel.
Wahlstrom got his start in the bioscience soon after he graduated from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota in 1978. He formed his own renewable energy company after graduating but sold the company a year later. He said people 30 years ago simply were not ready to embrace new energy technologies.
“It was a good idea at the wrong time,” he said. “I think a year or two after I sold my company, it went under.”
He then worked for Litton and Burroughs corporations before he went to work for Medtronic in 1982. He spent 24 years at Medtronic and eventually received nine patents for devices he invented. His time there gave him a deeper understanding of the bioscience industry and a commitment to making sure the public fully understands its importance.
“There’s a natural resistance on the part of human beings to change,” he said. “I can remember when family and people I know were complaining about computers – that computers were the bane of our future. There’s a lot of people out there that tend to not believe what is going on and yet, bioscience has been around forever. We’ve been breeding plants and animals for thousands of years. It’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that people realized you can do bad things with bioscience but you can do a lot of good things, too. There is a lack of understanding about the process of bioengineering. You have to monitor and control it, but it can be done in controlled environment and with proper oversight.”
Walhstrom said the mission of the BioBusiness Alliance — to educate not only the public but “decision makers” such as lawmakers and economic development directors — is one he believes can make a better future, and not only for Minnesota.
“Minnesota is definitely a leader when it comes to policy. I believe we lead the world with exception of potentially Sweden,” he said. “When I went to China for an international renewable energy congress, I couldn’t have a break without people wanting to talk to me about Minnesota’s initiatives. They want to understand the mandate for ethanol blend at 20 percent, how to get the legislature and executive branches to mandate use of renewable energy. Our policies here in Minnesota are recognized internationally and it seems that, finally, people want to know more.”
A native of a small, mostly Norwegian town in rural Minnesota, Wahlstrom was raised with renewable energy.
“I grew up in a home where biomass burned,” he said. “It was a small dairy farm that back in those days had to be self-sustaining.”
He was also rooted in his Scandinavian heritage, something that gave him an edge when he went into the renewable fuel business.
“It comes from my roots. I have strong Scandinavian roots and heritage, and right now Sweden leads the world in the use of biomass fuels,” he said. “I am a really strong advocate for renewable energy, especially biomass. I’m no less committed to solar and wind but I am committed to biomass because it is here and now. Solar today is here and now but it remains very expensive and is limited in its ability to replace fossil fuels.”
Growing up on the farm with both Swedish and Norwegian relatives helped Wahlstrom in another way as well. The long-standing rivalry between the two groups taught him when and where to argue his own point of view.
“My dad’s side is Swedish and my mom’s is Norwegian,” he said with a laugh. When the Swedish relatives are around I can’t mention the Norwegian blood and vice versa. “I learned I could never win either argument.”
Wahlstrom has traveled extensively throughout Scandinavia and closely tracks developments in the Swedish renewable energy market. Sweden uses not only agricultural material – plant stalks and other detritus farmers usually discard – but animal feces to power cars, buses, and power plants. Wahlstrom said although Minnesotans probably would not buy Swedish technology for ethnic pride reasons, they would look at it because it works.
“It certainly helps that Sweden is so far ahead (in biomass use). I would say it’s important but I don’t think ancestral roots are as important as one might think,” he said. “I don’t think a Minnesotan would buy something from Sweden that is inferior to the same product from Japan but the fact we still have strong cultural ties makes communication easier.”
Walhstrom said that the Swedish way of doing business was another asset in promoting biomass technology.
“We’re doing work in Minnesota that is more like that in Sweden because of the way we approach business and relationships,” he said. “I think it’s our cultural heritage more from the way we communicate to create trust exchange of information.”
Minnesota currently leads the United States in use of biomass and other renewable energy sources. The lead could increase even more thanks to the Destination 2025 initiative. Destination 2025 is a “roadmap” to increasing the state’s bioscience industries and it commits Minnesota to decreasing its use of fossil fuels and foreign oil by 25 percent by the year 2025. Wahlstrom said the technology already exists to accomplish that goal.
“We’re still dealing with the first generation of technology,” he said. “When you get into the second, third, and fourth generations of that technology, the costs come way down. The problem is people get married to the first generation of technology. We want to be part of making sure we’re always looking ahead.”
One way he does that, Wahlstrom said, is to keep abreast of what is happening in Scandinavia.
“What’s in place today is not based on Scandinavian technology, but ask that question again in two or three years and I think there will be a notable difference,” he said. “Sweden has already created its own biomass market and that’s something we’re looking at. We want know how to leverage that knowledge and apply it here.”
Wahlstrom also said part of his job is to combat the “misinformation” that always seems to accompany bioscience technology.
“There are definitely perception issues,” he said. “There is a lot of bad data in the media because we have so much info out there based on technology that may not be current.”
He said one example was the anti-ethanol lobby, which claims the biomass fuel is more expensive in money and resources than normal gasoline.
“That was true once,” Wahlstrom said. “It took 9 gallons of water to make a gallon of ethanol. Now it’s down to 3 gallons and the technology is coming that will make it close to 1 to 1.”
He also pointed to water desalinization as another area in which bioscience can improve people’s lives but that requires more debate over end use as opposed to production. “I believe water will become a non-issue because of technology enhancements,” he said. “We need to have a debate about where we’re putting the water. When it takes 1,000 gallons of water to make a pair of blue jeans, it is a debate society has to have.”
He also has a message for skeptics that see bioscience in general and biomass fuels in particular as somehow propagating technology to take over daily life.
“I would say that petroleum-based products and fossil fuels are nothing more than biomass fuels and there is a finite supply of those,” he said. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. All we’re trying to do is learn how to do the same process that nature does, only in a safe and cleaner manner.”
Written by Chipp Reid
Photographed by Henrik Olund
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