Tillman Gerngross, the Scientist Turned Scientific Businessman
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grew a half-acre vegetable garden. The venture represented his first lesson in entrepreneurship. His mother wanted him to manage his own budget, so she wouldn’t give him money to buy seeds. But when she needed some parsley a few weeks later? He charged her one Austrian schilling per bushel.
Early on, Gerngross developed a love for science. He loved the “clarity of thought,” the idea that regardless of what he believed, he could either prove it or he couldn’t.
“There’s a purity in that,” he says. “I just found science to be a framework, or a value system, that just resonated with me.”
So Gerngross sought out as much scientific information as he could. In high school, students were supplied with coupons to get required textbooks from bookstores for free. Gerngross instead got the required textbooks from kids who had finished those classes, and used his coupons to buy more science books.
As Gerngross soon discovered, this type of scientific appetite made him an outcast. At the time, he says, memorization techniques were preferred in the Austrian schooling system, not challenging students’ minds to solve problems. Gerngross was frustrated. He asked questions—lots of them—and it wasn’t always appreciated by his teachers.
So Gerngross got out. He spent a year and a half at the University of Paris studying French before pursuing science as a career. He enrolled at the Technical University of Vienna in 1983 and pursued a PhD in chemical engineering.
This was his ticket to greener pastures. To get a PhD, he had to do a two-year independent thesis. He gained permission to do that work in the U.S., at MIT, and then turn it into a dissertation he could hand in to his faculty advisor in Austria.
At first, Gerngross was intimidated by his new surroundings in Cambridge, MA. This was the deep end of the pool. But it was also an eye-opening experience that got him hooked on America.
“I walked into this lab, and they said, ‘This is the problem we’re working on. Help us solve the problem,’” he says. “And I’m like, this is awesome.”
Angst turned to excitement. Gerngross worked for two years as a visiting scientist in the lab of Arnold Demain, looking at how to convert sugars into useful bioproducts. He put his thesis together, got his PhD in Vienna, and returned to the U.S. for good.
Things were already in place for an engineering career. Gerngross had made a good enough impression to line up a postdoc job offer at MIT with microbiology professors Anthony Sinskey and JoAnne Stubbe. He spent two years at the lab working on biopolymers, figuring out how to convert carbohydrates into thermoplastics in biological systems. He met his future wife, then an architecture grad student at MIT. “I was super comfortable,” he says.
That, Gerngross says looking back, turned out to be his biggest mistake. He went with the flow, and the flow took him from there to Metabolix, a Cambridge company that came out of Sinskey’s lab. Gerngross wasn’t a founder, but he was the first hired employee, tasked with developing the processes, and the cell engineering, required to make the organisms that Metabolix planned to use to convert sugars into bioplastics. He toiled away. One year went by, then two, three, and eventually five. He didn’t like how the company was being run (“It was very top-down, this is where we’re going, and we don’t want to hear any questions,” he says), and admits waiting far too long before asking the “hard questions”—such as, wait a minute, is this actually good for the environment? Gerngross found that it wasn’t, and eventually published a paper showing why after he left his job at Metabolix.
“He was basically saying that the renewable plastics his company was working on actually used more oil to produce plastics than would’ve been made from oil—and went on to prove it,” Ross says. “[It was] an extremely gutsy thing to do.”
Even so, Gerngross felt trapped. He had a narrow set of skills in process engineering. So Gerngross leaned on his wife for advice. She pushed him to find a place where he could start over and explore new ideas: academia. He applied for several jobs before interviewing at Dartmouth, which needed a biochemistry professor.
Hutchinson interviewed two candidates: the young Gerngross, and a much more “senior” candidate who was favored by the chair of the search committee. While Gerngross had good MIT recommendations and a solid publishing record, his industry experience didn’t make him an obvious candidate. Hutchinson went to bat for him, impressed with the young candidate’s talent and drive.
Even so, Gerngross had his doubts when he initially took the job. He was hired to research biomass conversion. The idea was to make renewable energy from plants.
Not long after getting his fresh start, Gerngross rocked the boat again. He wondered: what would it take to actually … Next Page »