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Two South Coast tech companies crumble

By   /   Friday, February 20th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Two South Coast tech companies crumble

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Two publicly traded technology companies have disappeared from the Tri-Counties.

Last month, Camarillo-based Kreido Biofuels and Goleta-based Commerce Planet ceased most operations in the region. The firms have sold their assets to other companies and remain only to handle administrative and legal matters.

Kreido, which had developed a technology for the rapid production of biofuels, fell victim to the credit freeze as it tried to finance a crucial project at the chilliest point in the market. E-commerce platform provider Commerce Planet got tangled accounting problems and a fraud investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

Here’s a closer look at what happened at each firm.

Frozen out

“As I look back at it, I’d say we hit our stride in the bottom of the ‘U,’” said Ben Binninger, chief executive officer of Kreido, which developed a spinning tube-in-tube reactor to speed biofuel production. “Almost $20 million went into developing this technology.”

Kreido successfully pulled off a $25 million reverse merger in early 2007. But the company’s long-range plan — a flagship biofuels plant in North Carolina — called for it to hunt for capital again in late 2007.

As it did so, work went forward on the plant. Its modular components were built and “in the very final stages of construction,” Binninger said, but the permitting process for the 3.8-acre site in North Carolina slowed progress and added costs.

Unfortunately for the company, credit markets dried up at the same time.

“Just about the time we got our [initial $25 million] funding, the world changed — materials went up, prices came down,” Binninger said. “We were seeking the last tranche of our funding to reach the goal line at probably the worst time.”

Kreido ticked through its options to get the plant up and running, including bringing in a partner or putting the plant components on land that already had permits. But by June 2008, it had no success and froze plans for the North Carolina facility with permits in place but no ground broken.

By late 2008, the company gave itself a few months to live. Its shares had plummeted, its cash reserves had dwindled, and it had racked up deficit of $45 million.

The company also shrank to four employees, down from a high of about 20. “Most of the folks have gone their way over the last year or so, slowly as we’ve wound down,” Binninger said.

In January, Kreido inked a deal to sell its assets to Kentucky-based Four Rivers BioEnergy. In exchange, Kreido got $2.8 million in cash, about 17 percent of the Four Rivers’ common stock and stock options for the future.

“The plan is to pay off all our obligations and have significant ownership in the acquiring company,” Binninger said. “I wish [Kreido shareholders] had more, but we did what we could.”

Four Rivers has said it plans to commercialize Kreido’s former technology, which leaves Binninger optimistic, especially given President Obama’s promises to focus on renewable energy.

“The future is actually quite good for the technology and the business. It’s just the benefit will accrue to the people who are investing the additional resources,” Binninger said. “I believe in the technology, and I believe in what we’ve done. I hope Four Rivers is tremendously successful.”

FTC, accounting woes

Things came undone for Goleta-based Commerce Planet, which once employed more than 100, in March 2008, after it got slapped with a notice that the Federal Trade Commission was investigating its practices between 2004 and 2007 and the officers who controlled the company during that period.

Tony Roth, who until early February was still CEO of Commerce Planet and remains on its board of directors, didn’t respond to multiple phone messages left at two different numbers.

The company’s announcement that the FTC was looking it over came just days after the company said that its accounting couldn’t be relied on because of its auditors.

Its most recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission say the accounting errors could cause a $15 million hit to its books from 2004 to 2007. Though it now says the numbers aren’t reliable, Commerce Planet reported $8.7 million in profit on $27.4 million in revenue in 2006.

By December 2008, the FTC had served the company a formal complaint alleging the company engaged in unfair or deceptive practices in marketing a so-called “negative option plan.”

After joining a negative option plan, customers are charged for a product unless they tell the seller not to send it. The FTC requires companies to say whether there’s a minimum purchase and how to cancel membership in the plan in all marketing materials.

When Roth came aboard in 2007, he tried to turn around the company, which had lost customers because of its marketing techniques. He reformed its practices and purchased Iventa, a small firm offering a software-as-a-service e-commerce platform.

But the FTC investigation — which also focused on the company’s former management, who all resigned in 2007 — seems to have cooked the firm. The investigation, costs related to Iventa and losses from its old marketing techniques added up to a loss of more than $5 million.

In January, Commerce Planet sold its two old lines of business to Indiana-based Superfly Advertising for $825,000 in cash and 4.5 million shares of stock.

All Commerce Planet’s officers resigned, but Iventa continued to operate. The firm is shopping for options for what remains.

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