Long time coming: Bryden's trash-to-energy firm lands first official sale

Former Plasco plant
Omni Conversion Technologies once operated a demonstration plant on city-owned land on Trail Road, but the city ultimately severed its ties with the company then known as Plasco. Photo courtesy Omni Conversion Technologies

An Ottawa cleantech company that’s risen from the ashes six years after filing for creditor protection has signed the first customer for its technology that converts trash into energy.

Omni Conversion Technologies ​– formerly known as Plasco Conversion Technologies ​– said this week it closed a US$35-million deal to sell one of its waste-conversion units to the Larsen and Lam Climate Initiative, a non-profit foundation led by California philanthropists Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam.

Larsen, a billionaire tech entrepreneur and executive chairman of money-transfer software firm Ripple Labs, is working with a California developer who plans to install Omni’s system at an undisclosed location in the state.

Larsen hailed the Ottawa-developed technology that uses high-temperature plasma gas to convert garbage into energy as a “first-of-its-kind product that can have a global and immediate impact.”

Omni CEO Rod Bryden said Larsen heard about the firm last year from renowned renewable-energy expert Daniel Kammen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied Omni’s technology. 

Key endorsement

Larsen ultimately decided that setting up one of the local company’s units would be his foundation’s first project in its fight against climate change. The plant is expected to be up and running by the end of 2023.

Bryden is hoping an endorsement from a significant figure in the green-energy movement will help accelerate Omni’s path to market.

“We have a number of discussions proceeding well, but they’ll proceed a lot better after that (sale),” he told OBJ on Friday.

Bryden conceded that many potential investors and customers have been skittish about pouring money into “what was seen as a reincarnation of Plasco,” but he thinks the tide may be turning.

“We happen – finally – to have a product in the right place at the right time.”

"We happen – finally – to have a product in the right place at the right time."

Its first official sale is a long time coming for the firm, which was founded by Bryden 16 years ago and was once considered a rising star in the local cleantech scene.

In 2008, then-Plasco convinced Ottawa city council to provide municipal land for a demonstration project on Trail Road. The company spent hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment attempting to prove its technology would work.

Three years later, Plasco got the green light from the province to build a commercial plant and signed a 20-year, $180-million deal with the city to take as much as 300 tonnes of garbage a day. 

But the company missed several deadlines to provide the city with plans for a functioning plant. In late 2013, Bryden was replaced as CEO by Ray Floyd, a former senior executive at General Motors, Exxon Mobil and Suncor Energy. 

After the company struggled to meet several deadlines to secure additional financing, the firm ultimately filed for protection from its creditors in early 2015. Later that year, Bryden repurchased the company for $1 in a transaction that included its intellectual property, but not the Trail Road facility.

Potential customers in North America, Europe

While Bryden admits the last few years have been a tough go, he said Omni appears to be back on track. The company is now in talks with several potential customers in North America and Europe.

But Bryden cautions that Omni’s system is just one component of the complex and expensive process of turning trash into green hydrogen and other fuels. Discussions with prospective buyers can stretch on for months with no guarantee they’ll result in a signed contract, he noted.

“The opportunities are large,” Bryden said, adding: “We could lose them all, or not.”

When it comes to gaining market trust, he says the proof will be in the pudding. 

“What really will send the message is when the plant (works),” he said. “That’s what really will satisfy the market. Every investment is a measure between the value on the upside and the risk on the downside. The balance between what’s the risk and what’s the reward changes the more certain it is that the reward is coming.”

Meanwhile, the 80-year-old New Brunswick native says he’s looking to slow down as Omni’s sales potential ramps up.

Although he still seems to have more energy than many people half his age ​– he finished his last business call at 1 a.m. Friday morning and was up walking his dog at 5:30 a.m. ​– Bryden says he’s actively seeking his replacement in the hope of easing into the less demanding role of executive chairman.

“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s very rewarding, but it needs a person in the heart of his career to drive this. It’s a monumental, world-scale opportunity. This company needs leadership that will lead it into the next phase, and we’re searching for that right now.”