When Mike Knauf tells his friends back in California he’s working for a startup in Montana, most assume he’s working in a dingy garage.

The new chief executive officer of Rivertop Renewables is able to show them otherwise. As of Friday, Knauf can tell everyone that instead of a garage, his office sits inside a state-of-the-art facility that includes a new semi-works pilot lab where Rivertop can expand its groundbreaking work in renewable chemical development.

Rivertop built its new facility inside the Montana Enterprise Technology Center, or MonTEC, as a part of a $3.5 million project there. The renovation added 2,000 square feet and included substantial upgrades inside the building.

The company gave tours of the new facility Friday.

“It’s a remarkable contrast to what it used to be. I always used to think of it as kind of a dungeon,” said Joe Fanguy, MonTEC president and University of Montana’s director of technology.

Instead of dark hallways, Rivertop’s researchers and scientists now work under mostly natural light surrounded by locally made art in a space that connects them strategically to the labs.

Born of research spearheaded by Don Kiely during his time as a chemistry professor at UM, Rivertop has perfected a process that allows for large-scale production of renewable chemicals made from simple plant sugars.

It’s a breakthrough that could change the industrial chemical industry.

The environmentally neutral chemicals can be used to replace more harmful chemicals, such as phosphates and other inhibitors which can linger in water supplies and have negative effects on ecosystems.

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Rivertop’s sugar-based corrosion inhibitor is already being used as a substitute for more corrosive salt-based inhibitors mixed in with road deicer. Next, the company hopes to tackle the billion-dollar detergent industry.

Knauf has worked for decades in the industrial chemical industry, helping market detergent enzymes then help build bio-based chemical compounds. In Rivertop, he sees a “tremendous” company that is now ready to focus on getting its products ready for clients to sample and test.

“We’re building a business here. This is a real business, We’re going to be building a successful Montana company. That has a nice ring to it,” Knauf said.

Rivertop is considered the “anchor tenant” at MonTEC, the business and technology incubator managed by the University of Montana. Rivertop moved into MonTEC when it was founded in 2008 and has signed a 10-year lease.

Not only does the upgrade allow Rivertop to grow, it signals a new era for MonTEC, Fanguy said.

Less than a year ago, MonTEC’s future was in question. Few tenants remained and its longtime manager and founding partner, the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp., had just dissolved.

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UM stepped in to pledge money and manage the building. In April 2011, Rivertop announced it had secured a $1.75 million loan from the U.S. Economic Development Administration with the help of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. UM matched that grant and Rivertop invested another $2.5 million in private capital to fully equip the facility.

Fanguy is now the president of MonTEC and UM has entered a contract to manage the space. Along with Rivertop, MonTEC is home to several promising startups, including Legal Atlas and Aim Geoanalytics.

Rivertop was crucial in helping revive MonTEC.

“It really does change the business model for MonTEC. Since they now provide financial stability and occupancy for that building, it allows our efforts to focus on programs and development of new companies,” Fanguy said.

MonTEC is a place where anyone can come to find resources, he said, adding that there is space available for new tenants.

Baucus and UM President Royce Engstrom were among the dozens of people who toured MonTEC’s new additions Friday.

Rivertop’s vice president of process development, Steven Donen, explained how the new semi-works pilot lab will help Rivertop.

“We want to bring the good ideas out to the world, and that’s not going to happen in a little flask,” Donen said.

The “top of the line” pilot lab will be filled with equipment like 30-gallon vessels and distilling towers, which will allow the company to streamline the production of Rivertop’s products. Many of the office spaces are open now, but Knauf said they’ll be filling up quickly, as Rivertop is looking to hire.

Almost lost in the crowd that had come to see what his research had spawned was Don Kiely.

He refused to take full credit for the scene, admitting only that it felt “just great” to have toured Rivertop’s new world-class facility.

“It’s everybody’s baby,” Kiely said. “It has a lot of parents.”

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