A Conversation With Alan Shaw, CEO of Biotech Company Codexis

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AlanShaw-Post.jpgFounded less than a decade ago in 2002, Codexis is a biotechnology firm with approximately 300 employees working to create sustainable chemicals, renewable ingredients, and clean fuels for some of the largest public companies in the world, including Royal Dutch Shell and Merck & Co. Alan Shaw has served as president and chief executive officer since Codexis's inception. Prior to launching Codexis, Shaw worked as a managing director for Lancaster Synthesis, chief operating officer of Archimica, head of new business development for Clariant, and managing director of Chirotech Technology Limited.

Here, Shaw discusses directed evolution, or the process by which natural genetic mutations are accelerated in a laboratory to obtain targeted improvements in proteins; how close we are -- perhaps just one decade away -- to creating renewable transportation fuels; and how startling it is that the world's populations is projected to reach nine billion in just 40 years.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I reply that I am an entrepreneur and an industrialist. An entrepreneur most people can understand. An industrialist perhaps less so, but it's a term I identify with and is, I think, a better description of how I think about my job at Codexis. We are focused on developing sustainable solutions to the world's most pressing environmental problems, and we are creating a sustainable company for the long haul. We have partnered with some of the world's leaders in their respective industries: Shell, Alcoa, Pfizer, Merck, and others.

Years from now, it is my goal that Codexis technology will be at the core of many things we take for granted -- our fuel, our food, our hair products, our deodorant. We're only just beginning.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

Something that has had a significant impact on our business and I think will be a winning technology for our industry is directed evolution. In directed evolution, natural genetic mutation is accelerated in the lab to obtain specific, targeted improvements in the function of proteins. Indeed, nearly every industrial product and application involving proteins relies on directed evolution. It is being used to find solutions in everything from food ingredients and pharmaceuticals to laundry aids and biofuels. And it forms the core of our proprietary CodeEvolver technology platform.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

I think people don't realize how close we are to a solution to true renewable transportation fuels. Codexis is working with Shell and Raizen, two leading biofuels producers, to develop new types of transportation fuels. In the future, we believe our technology can be employed to develop a process for efficiently manufacturing biofuels from agricultural waste products such as sugarcane bagasse. This is the Holy Grail. And with the pace things are going now, it won't take four decades. More like one.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Many people may not realize how quickly the world population is growing. It reached seven billion in November 2011. Just over 200 years ago it was just one billion. The more startling prediction is that it will reach nine billion in the next 40 years. And the number of cars on the road is expected to double to two billion in that time. These trends will drive sharply increased demand for energy. This energy must come from renewable sources.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

I agree with those who point to green-washing. I think green-washing does us all a disservice by setting the wrong expectations with the public about how much work and investment is involved in getting to practical, widely-deployed renewable fuels.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Actually, we have found that considering ideas that initially seemed off track can lead in the right direction. When biofuels was first suggested to us, we were focused on pharmaceuticals. Today, biofuels is our major business, and we have also entered the biobased chemicals market, a $6 billion market seeking sustainable alternative raw materials.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

I would have to say our partners. Our partners share our vision for deploying innovative technology for a better world. Without them and their support, Codexis wouldn't be where it is today.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Public policy would interest me. I have learned over my business career that jobs and progress are driven by innovation. I have worked a lot with the political leadership in various countries where we do business, and they can have a significant impact on the adoption of innovation.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

I am a big consumer of global and financial news, and I find I use the FT.com from the Financial Times and CNN.com regularly.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

I don't have a particular song stuck in my head, but a movie I recently saw again resonates with me: Contact, where Jodie Foster investigates life on another planet. The movie was controversial for various reasons, but the takeaway for me as the leader of a scientific company is the important role science can play in asking the big questions.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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