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September 22, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The good, the bad and the oily The good, the bad and the oily (September 22, 2004)

Local entrepreneur pushes biodegradable lubricants

by Melinda Casillas

Entrepreneur Jeffrey Marth could sell ice to a polar bear. He has all the fanaticism and conviction of a traveling sideshow preacher, and an enthusiasm that could exhaust a Chihuahua. But most important in his line of business, Marth has a revolutionary product and a virtually unlimited target market.

Founder of United Bio Lube, Inc., Marth introduced a safe, biodegradable, soy-based alternative to toxic household lubricants (such as WD-40) at Palo Alto Ace Hardware last month. It comes in a bright green can and its environmentally-aware label makes a mockery of the hazards and warnings listed on the cans next to it.

And that's just the beginning.

United Bio Lube, Inc. has more than 30 ecologically-sound products up its sleeve, all slated for release to the public in the next year. Marth's lead product -- Bio Penetrating Lubricant or BPL -- found its way onto the shelves in 30 Ace Hardware stores in the Bay Area since its introduction just weeks ago, with big-name chains like Yardbirds, West Marine, and Kragen chomping at the bit.

"In one day alone, we sold 42 cans at a store in Piedmont," Marth said, genuinely surprised at his own success.

Marth grew up in Palo Alto, and it seems as if entrepreneurship is in his blood.

"I'm a hard worker; I always have been," said Marth. "I worked at a diner cleaning up after the bakers who made the donuts, put myself through school."

Marth went to Foothill and West Valley colleges, eventually earning a degree in Computer Engineering from Chico State. After college, he carved a niche for himself creating databases for small companies who couldn't afford professional prices. When that wouldn't pay the bills, he began developing computers that were modeled after a pen and paper metaphor, using a stylus and tablet. Unfortunately, it didn't fly. With the relatively recent advent of similar technology applied in PDAs and in graphic art arenas, Marth realizes he was quite simply ahead of his time.

"That experience taught me about the rise and fall of business. We sort of shot up and then within three or four years, we were done."

After several more high-tech ventures, Marth turned to what he calls "real-time trading." (The term "day trading" left a sour taste in his mouth when he lost a large sum of money to the dot-com crash in 2001.) Fortunately, trading equities for five years did leave him with enough precious capital to make his dreams come true.

While doing technical analysis on mutual funds for a group of investors in 2001, Marth stumbled onto renewable lubricants. He learned that soybeans, corn, and canola could be carefully hybrid-bred to produce oils which could be mixed to create lubricants, solvents, motor oils and even diesel fuels that were non-toxic and biodegrade in as few as 28 days. Here was a renewable, sustainable resource that could actually make the world a better place -- and in more ways than one. The smell of car exhaust that he'd always hated as a child could be gone in his lifetime. The U.S. wouldn't have to depend on foreign oil. More jobs could be created, the environment improved, world peace achieved...

But he had work to do.

Marth, sole proprietor and lone employee of United Bio Lube, Inc., quickly partnered with Ohio-based Renewable Lubricants, a sixth-generation farm and "bio-based alternative" research lab. Renewable Lubricants researches, tests, develops and produces an entire suite of bio-based products ranging from high performance racing motor oils to firearm lubricants to corrosion inhibitors, even 2-cycle bar and chain oils -- perfect for use with those loud, smelly leaf blowers. They hold nine patents and all the trade secrets, Marth adds coyly.

While Renewable Lubricants handles the manufacturing and research (along with Penn State, Chevron-Phillips, and other universities and think tanks), UBL, Inc. is what Marth refers to as their "commercialization arm." He's the guy in the spotlight. He works on procuring grants from the U.S. government for research, gets the label on the product and most importantly, gets it on the shelf and makes the public aware of it.

"My credibility is based on Renewable Lubricants' research and development laboratories and in their production factory," Marth said humbly.

The team's biggest break came on May 13, 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the Farm Bill. The law provides $1 million per year for five years for the testing of bio-based products (overseen by the USDA, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Interior, and Department of Energy). Moreover, it requires that all government agencies -- federal, state and local -- purchase bio-based products to the fullest extent possible.

National parks have been on board and using these alternatives for years. When the U.S. military needed to find an alternative to petroleum to reduce costs and fire hazards for troops, they turned to UBL, Inc. and Renewable Lubricants.

"Our hydraulic fluid is being used in M-1 tanks in Iraq. Now when they're hit, they don't explode into a million pieces. We're saving lives," Marth said.

The City of Palo Alto even has its own "Sustainability Policy," according to Phil Bobel, manager of the Environmental Compliance Division.

"It basically says that however the city can use less and pollute less, we're for it," said Bobel.

"We do support biodeisel since a reduction in the use of traditional fuel would mean fewer pollutants in the air and water. Unburned hydrocarbons, mercury and other metal pollutants are disbursed through the air and then settle on the ground and contaminate water."

Bobel offered that 75,000 gallons were used last year in the city's fleet, mostly in the large earth-movers used at the landfill.

"We know that there haven't been any major problems-- the vehicles are running fine."

That's music to Marth's ears.

"Our biggest skeptics are the city fleet managers. Because of the federally-required use of bio-based products whenever possible, they've had all kinds of 'snake-oil' salesmen trying to convince them to use inferior stuff. In some cases, if they use our products, their manufacturer's warrantees will be voided. Now it's just a knee-jerk reaction for them to be cynical," Marth said.

Over all though, Marth has been shocked at the ease of getting his foot in the door in places like San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Sacramento city halls.

"Everyone says the government sector is a nightmare to deal with. I've been very welcomed and easily gotten appointments right away. It really feels like these guys want to at least hear what I have to say."

Easy or hard, Marth is anxiously teetering at the edge of a world of possibilities. He is an entrepreneur to the core, but a kinder, gentler entrepreneur.

"I know this culture, I know how to make sacrifices -- living in my garage, not buying clothes... Sure I'm looking for something to do, but I'm also trying to improve the world at the same time. I feel that if you're in a position to do something for the world, it's your responsibility. You got to go to college. You got to take calculus. Not everyone gets to."


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