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.
➤ 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.”