A Conversation With Alan Shaw, CEO of Biotech Company Codexis

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.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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