The Bio-Academic Entrepreneurs

Intellect, experience and business sense make them the industry’s dream
| August 22, 2011

If you don’t know who Jay Keasling is and what he’s accomplished, you should. Keasling helped create a synthetic microbial platform used in malaria-treating drugs, renewable chemicals, advanced biofuels, and he’s been interviewed by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert on the highly popular program, The Colbert Report. Keasling says his time on the show was “great fun” speaking about the role synthetic biology will play in the future of fuels, and while the interview was entertaining, his work is a significant achievement holding major implications. The synthetic microbial platform he helped create is the basis of Amyris, the headlining company he founded that has already issued a successful IPO and is teaming up with global partners too numerous to count.

Keasling may not have created the notion that utilizing renewable feedstocks to replace petroleum in products ranging from polymers to diesel is a good one, but he does epitomize the type of person to whom the entire biorefining industry can—and should—look for a better understanding of not only where the industry has been, but where it could be. And why? Because, in addition to his time spent founding successful companies and appearing on television, Keasling is also the CEO and director for the Joint Bioenergy Institute. JBEI, pronounced “Jay-Bay,” could be the best example of why people such as  Keasling matter to the industry. In addition to Amyris and LS9, Keasling says, “We are going to see more research from JBEI that both launches other companies” and is “licensed by existing companies and used in biofuels work,” he says. “I look at JBEI as developing some of the cornerstone technologies for this field, solving some of the really difficult scientific problems that companies would not necessarily look into.”

Fortunately, Keasling is not one of a kind. JBEI is filled with innovative researchers who have that killer combination of intellectual background and business savvy to take a synthetic microbe or a genetically modified catalyst and develop it in an economically feasible way. They may work in academia donning white coats and safety goggles, but they have the spirit of MBA students dreaming of the next big thing, or, sorry to say for Keasling, the companies that will someday compete with Amyris. These are the people in the industry with whom investors want to have lunch and private companies want to work.

Understanding Bright Prospects

When George Huber first started his career in research and development, he was a chemical engineering student at Brigham Young University. “I went to a researcher and talked to him about his research, and he told me about Fischer-Tropsch synthesis,” Huber says of his early days. “In my mind that was the coolest idea possible. I spent as much time as I could in the lab trying to learn about it.” Huber doesn’t work at JBEI, but he has achieved, on a much smaller scale, what Keasling has. After joining the University of Massachusetts-Amherst staff in November 2006, he helped develop a single-step process to make olefins and aromatics from biomass using a catalytic fast pyrolysis system. That process is the basis for Anellotech, the startup company for which Huber is now a consultant.

Huber still considers research his main focus and, for companies looking to work with people such as Huber, that’s not a bad thing. “The goal in the academic world is to do the fundamental research that will allow the biofuels industry to occur,” he says. But Huber asserts that researchers like him are more than aware of what their work could mean. “I think it is an exciting time to be in this industry,” he says. “I think there is a lot of room for growth and improving these processes.” There are big economic incentives, he explains, for the people who can stick with it and continue to develop their technology.

Aindrila Mukhopadhyay shares some of the same sentiments as Huber. She is a researcher at JBEI and, from her perspective, “No scientist does research strictly for the research.” Listening to Aindrila, it’s easy to understand why many of the researchers focused on biofuels and biobased products will be able to bridge the gap between their work in the lab and their work in the office—because they truly believe in it. She says scientists like her “have some ulterior motive” and “an inspiration in the back of their minds.” For most of her colleagues and peers, she says, there is a powerful incentive to do the work they do “to be able to explain to a layman, in a few sentences, why what you do is important.”

Every once in a while, she says, “You suddenly see the momentum building in your environment. You see politics changing to accommodate your research. You see the economy starting to track with your research.” And that, she says, “is very exciting to have in the background.” Aindrila agrees with both Huber and Keasling, who insist that research at places like JBEI helps the bioenergy landscape simply because “what they (private companies) cannot do is the wild stuff that we do”—the type of research that doesn’t come with a profit in the near-term. But she says that same research has fallout that some researchers seek out: the lucrative appeal of starting a company.

“Some people are really geared towards starting their own company so that they can control their contributions in a much more focused way,” she says. And in a way that will allow for more direct compensation of their work. “There are so many of my colleagues who are so good at really whittling down a big body of science to the technology that will actually make a difference and have a product at the end,” she adds. “In my time in this research group,” Aindrila says, “I have seen three or four companies being visualized and I have seen one of them go on to be the most successful companies in biofuels, and one that is on the brink. [JBEI] inspires a lot of people and attracts a lot of very talented people because that opportunity does exist.”

Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Bioscience Institute, a bioenergy lab run out of the University of California-Berkeley, also knows an opportunity when he sees one. In 2007, Somerville became the director of EBI, leaving behind the company he founded, LS9 Inc. Though no longer involved with LS9, he does have a direct link to BP, a company his research institution is working with directly. Somerville has a few thoughts on that link to BP, and like Keasling, he also has a few ideas on what it takes to build a startup out of a research lab, and what investors and private companies need to know if they want to join in on the party.

What the Founders Believe

Somerville has founded three companies. Based on that experience, he says he has some ideas how to formulate valuable objectives, how to design goals and pace milestones regarding time and money, and how to organize and motivate teams that can execute on those goals. Unfortunately, an academic setting can at times make it tough to implement a startup culture. “However, some aspects of those practices from companies can be implemented, such as fostering teamwork and creating or importing service providers that enable researchers to focus on what they do well,” he says. And frequently, he adds, “just thinking through how a problem would be approached in a company with respect to cost-benefit and risk mitigation can be very helpful in designing academic collaborations to accomplish specific goals.”

The relationship between EBI and BP has also helped his research institution in ways others might envy. “Because of our relationship,” he says, “we have a very effective mechanism to learn from BP about issues affecting plans for cellulosic fuels production from their perspective, and advise them about how we see those issues from the academic perspective. Indeed, one of the major goals of EBI,” Somerville adds, “is to try and help BP gain a broad academic perspective on the field so that they have the information to make good decisions from a ‘whole system’ perspective.” He says his overall opinion on the relationship is that if BP implements change in the energy sector, the rest of the companies will follow.

Keasling has not yet worked with BP, but he has perspective on how to help his research lab succeed. “I think investors need to work with academics to develop a business plan or a plan for the company,” he says of getting an academic’s research efforts converted to a commercial reality. “It is hard sometimes for academics to identify products, to understand all the economics around those. Generally,” he adds, “those are things held pretty tightly by companies, so it is hard to get that information. It is easier for venture capitalists that are really well connected to get that information.”

Keasling says for those researchers out there hoping to have the term “founder” behind their name one day, the key is to focus on work they find fun and interesting while keeping an eye on how it could be commercialized. At JBEI, the staff is encouraged to work on their projects in a way that will allow them to file for patents. Somerville says one of his goals is to “foster startups.”

Keasling and Somerville both believe their institutions are at the top of the list for companies looking for guidance, and partners, in bioenergy. And it would be hard to argue with either. As Aindrila points out, “Industry doesn’t have the luxury, especially startup companies,” of performing the kind of research that she and her colleagues get to do every day. That’s what makes people like Aindrila, Huber, Somerville and Keasling unique and so important to the industry. Not only are they on the cutting edge of the research that could be the next big thing, but they have the spirit and willingness to take off those white lab coats and safety goggles for a business suit and talk products or markets for the technology and biologic breakthroughs they worked on that morning. Keasling offers a word of advice to investors. “Keep an eye out for interesting technology and smart people, and work with them to develop that technology even further.”   

Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
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