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Synthetic Biology

Frances Arnold on founding a company: ‘Building the right teams is critical’

Nobel Prize winner wants to solve real-world problems with directed evolution

by Bethany Halford
March 8, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 9

09809-feature6-arnold.jpg
Credit: Caltech
09809-feature6-arnold.jpg
Credit: Caltech

Frances Arnold describes herself as fearless. Whether she’s creating an enzyme to do her bidding, starting a new company, or appearing on prime-time television, the California Institute of Technology chemical engineering professor seemingly has the mettle to master anything.

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Vitals

Academic title: Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry, California Institute of Technology

Companies: Aralez Bio, founded in 2019; Provivi, founded in 2013; and Gevo, founded in 2005

Most recent funding: $85 million in series C funding for Provivi

Since winning a share of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering work in directed evolution, Arnold has made bold moves in the business world and beyond. Last year she joined the board of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and even played herself on the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory.

It’s no surprise then that Arnold’s dauntlessness extends to entrepreneurship. “I’m an engineer by training,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in how science can be applied to solving real-world problems.”

After acting as a founding adviser to savvy start-ups, including bioengineering firms Amyris and Maxygen, Arnold says, she had the confidence to create a company based on technology from her lab. And she didn’t stop at one. Arnold has cofounded three companies that use directed evolution to create enzymes that churn out valuable chemicals: Gevo, a producer of biofuel and chemicals; Provivi, a specialist in nontoxic pest control; and, most recently, Aralez Bio, which makes unnatural amino acids.

“Of course I didn’t take on the hard job,” Arnold says, which is to actually run the company. “The key was having the people who would do the actual work because it’s a hell of a lot of work,” she says. “It really takes a lot of teamwork and a lot of different kinds of skills that academic inventors don’t necessarily have, so building the right teams is critical.”

What do you wish you had known at the start?

"You learn on the job. There’s no good class for being an entrepreneur. You do it, and not everything is going to be successful. It’s painful when things are not successful, but that’s part of the process."

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