Volume 89 Issue 28 | p. 25 | C&EN Talks With
Issue Date: July 11, 2011

Robert Grubbs

Nobel Laureate shares his views on commercializing science developed in an academic lab
Department: Business
News Channels: JACS In C&EN
Keywords: Olefin metathesis, commercial development, nobel prize
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Grubbs enjoys the challenge of applying his laboratory developments to commercial ventures.
Credit: Sud-Chemie
Nobel Laureate Robert A. Grubbs at Sud-Chemie’s catalyst conference in Beijing in May 2011.
 
Grubbs enjoys the challenge of applying his laboratory developments to commercial ventures.
Credit: Sud-Chemie

Robert H. Grubbs is at the stage of his career when he can reflect on his experiences and the people who have influenced him through the years. Recently he has been thinking about John C. Bailar Jr., a University of Illinois chemistry professor he met in the early 1970s, when Bailar had recently retired and Grubbs was just starting his career. Grubbs, who will be 70 next year, was impressed by Bailar’s energy and intelligence and by how “a person that old could still have so much enthusiasm about his work,” he recalls. “And I have just realized that I am the age that John was then.”

Without a doubt, Grubbs has channeled his own intelligence and enthusiasm quite successfully with his breakthrough metathesis chemistry research, which led to the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, shared with Yves Chauvin and Richard R. Schrock. But although Grubbs is well-known for his science, he has made an impact in business as well, starting up in recent years several companies based on the activities of his research group at California Institute of Technology. Such start-ups fill a gap left by the loss of central research divisions at large companies, he says, as they moved toward more commercially targeted R&D.

Grubbs saw commercial applications for his catalysis work early on, he explains, but he struggled to find the best way to get to the market. “You cannot ask a graduate student to make 10 samples to send to a company for testing,” he explains, so he tried to work through industry connections. “I would give my technology to a company, but I soon found that my main contact would move on and the project would be dropped,” Grubbs recalls. “Setting up a company is the only way to keep things moving.”

Two types of companies have emerged from Grubbs’s research: those that build on the technology platform of metathesis and those that address specific market needs with new scientific developments that aren’t related to metathesis.

Materia is a platform company that applies metathesis catalysis to markets as diverse as wind energy, pharmaceutical products, and automotive polymers. Started by Grubbs 13 years ago, the firm announced this spring that it will build an R&D and catalyst production facility in Singapore (C&EN, March 21, page 23). The company is run by a former postdoctoral student, Michael A. Giardello, and Grubbs serves as a board member and scientific adviser.

“Materia is based on technology that I have been working on for my whole career,” Grubbs says. “I just want to see it go places; it is a personal thing.” Other companies that grew from metathesis chemistry include Elevance Renewable Sciences, which produces industrial chemicals from natural oils, and Aileron Therapeutics, which makes pharmaceuticals.

Calhoun Vision is an example of the “market-pull” type of company because it fulfills a consumer need with technology from Grubbs’s labs. In collaboration with Julia A. Kornfield, a chemical engineering professor at Caltech, the firm developed a polysiloxane-based polymer for an adjustable lens used in cataract treatment. The shape of the lens is changed by irradiation after implantation, resulting in much-improved vision. The company is currently running clinical trials in the U.S.

Calhoun Vision originated from discussions with clinicians at the University of California, San Francisco. Grubbs and his group now meet with them twice a year to consider new answers to other real-world problems. “Calhoun and other similar companies come from my interest as a scientist to solve problems,” Grubbs says. “The more you can solve problems that people actually care about, the more fun it is.”

But Grubbs does not work for passion or amusement alone. Success as measured in commercial terms is also important to him, and he has learned to overcome the challenges of converting his science into a viable business.

“It is really hard to develop a business concept that fits the technology,” he says. Critical decisions include timing of commercialization, assessing potential market size, and developing internally versus licensing to others. And managing a company through those transitions requires a range of leadership skills. “Different stages of companies need different kinds of executives, so you either have to change CEOs or get someone who can grow with the company,” he explains. Grubbs feels fortunate that Giardello has been able to mature along with Materia; many of his other ventures, in contrast, have gone through multiple chief executive officers.

Patents are a natural outgrowth of Grubbs’s work in the commercial realm, and he is named as an inventor on 117 patents at last count. He works closely with the Caltech Office of Technology Transfer to prepare the patent applications and legal agreements with companies, acknowledging that such activities are tedious but necessary.

Grubbs says patents are becoming more important in academia, especially in grant applications. “The National Science Foundation has started to ask about patents, and that is a whole new game,” he points out. Grubbs’s patent portfolio is certainly impressive, but, he notes, it is not as long as the list of papers he’s published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.  

 
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