About this Episode
Ray Miller shares the story from concept to market for one of the first of the modern industrial biopolymers – 1,3 propanediol.
CB: Hello everyone, and welcome to Tech Transfer Talk. I’m Cameron Begley, and today we’re very privileged to have someone with us who was at the early days and in the foundations of the bio-based economy, with one of the first at-scale bio products that made its way through to the market. That person I’m referring to as Ray Miller talking to us from Philadelphia in the United States. Ray, hello.
RM: Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening.
CB: Thanks very much for joining us. I should have known the minute we met, we’d be kindred spirits, given you’re a chemical engineer. But after your early days in in, I guess, a classical chemicals business, the world turned a little bit for you in 1995.
RM: It definitely did.
CB:Could you tell us about those early days of what catalysed the beginning of the 1,3 bio-PDO (propanediol) story?
RM: Well, the polymer that’s made from that is polytrimethylamine terephthalate, also known as PTT, and DuPont had been following that actually for decades. And in 1995, Shell Chemicals announced that they had developed a route to making 1,3-propanediol and therefore PTT (polytrimethylene terephthalate), and that they were intending to launch a business making the polymer and selling the polymer to DuPont’s nylon fibre customers, which was a red flag, right.
CB: So, a clear and present danger to the DuPont nylon business. got this conversation started.
RM: Yeah. So that was an early motivator. And of course, nylon was the largest single business within DuPont at the time. And so, this was perceived as a substantial threat. And it cut out the, if you will, the fibre producers, because the major market for nylon at that time was carpet, residential carpet. And DuPont supplied the fibre. And the carpet companies wanted to backward integrate, but they didn’t have the polymer. This would allow them to get the polymer and ironically, make a better carpet.
CB: So, it was a brave decision to go through a biological route at this time. But this is, this is right on the edge of what was then the current thinking. So, Ray, could you share with us, you know, at that moment of deep commercial threat, why on earth go bio? Why. why not just compete on classical petrochemical terms?
RM: Well, ironically, in addition to other things that DuPont was doing, it was actually starting, it was in a very nascent stage of developing metabolic engineering technology, so they can make chemicals and materials. And so, they were actually looking for a reason to deploy that technology. However, it was very risky at the time. We didn’t rely only on the bio route. We actually acquired access to a chemical route from Degussa, in order to be able to launch our own polymer business while we were developing the bio route.
CB: So, interestingly, as part of bringing this product to market, you created a ramp using another technology.
RM: Yes, exactly. Which also allowed us to learn what we needed to learn in order to make good polymer and fiber, which became a crucial, eventually when we launched the business.
CB: So already we find a moment of serendipity where the organisation that was threatened was already looking at a broad platform or an alternative way of making chemicals. And then coincidentally, in order to develop that business, you needed a pathway to supply material not only to customers but also to yourselves in order to understand the material.
RM: Yes. And ironically, we actually gave Shell Chemicals the opportunity to supply us with 1,3-propanediol from their facility so we could learn what we needed to learn. But Shell refused.
RM: We had no choice but to go out and find another way to get access.
CB: So, I can certainly understand why Shell would have declined the opportunity to supply their competitor.
RM: It would have been a partnership.
CB: Well, no, I guess that depends on your vantage point there. But Degussa being, being the alternative that you approach… Degussa themselves, of course, pursued bio in a range of different areas. How did Degussa come, come to actually take develop a pet chem route for you, or did they just, you know, assist you to a limited scale? Because it’s very interesting for another major to step into a space where you’re demonstrably creating the alternative.
RM: Well, this is a, this is what happens. There’s a confluence of different incentives that were all coming together at the same time. Degussa was a large producer of acrolein and they use that to make methionine.
RM: Methyl methionine. But they found that they could use the acrolein pathway to make 1,3-propanediol. They did that in a laboratory, and they were aware that1,3-propanediol had potential commercial interest. So, they were pursuing that route totally independently. And we discovered that. And we had we entered into conversations with them.
CB: This this is already emerging from a technology transfer perspective. The early days are the perfect stars aligning for you. Where a major is established, the market in Shell and an alternative route to a acrolein is emerging. And then you’re partnering with the second entrant in order to effectively yourselves become the third entrant.
RM: Yeah. So, when we began working with Degussa on their PDO, we found that their PDO quality was not very good. And so, we entered into a joint development agreement with Degussa to improve their PDO in exchange for their agreement that if we were successful, then we would make a joint venture to manufacture the PDO together. They were not interested in going downstream into polymer fibre, because that is that’s not what they were used to doing.
CB: That seems a curious decision to pass on the downstream integration.
RM: Well, the fibere business is a lot more complicated than most people realise, and I was smart enough to realise that early on.
CB: So. So you don’t see it as curious. You see it as actually insightful, perhaps?
RM: I believe so…
CB: Yeah. Interesting.
RM: Because we had that relationship then eventually, and we were developing the bio-PDO, which eventually replaced the Degussa process. Degussa began working earnestly on bio routes for their own chemicals. That’s how they got started. And actually, the guy who worked with us on the PDO in Degussa became the head of their bio effort in what’s now called Evonik.
CB: So, to a certain extent, you could see the moment of catalysis within Degussa now Evonik, where their bio program started up because they saw the writing on the wall through the PDO partnership.
RM: Exactly. Which is not known in the public, but only a few people know this. So now it’s public.
CB: Yeah, it’s a long way down the track now.
CB: Yeah. The genesis of how these, how these industry trajectories have evolved where, you know, it was quite clear in the sort of mid-noughties, it’s really interesting how DuPont seeded a lot, you know, seeded a good part of that early work. And now we’re starting to see, you know, hear, hear of stories like Degussa-Evonik and others. I suspect the sustainability component, you know, is naturally almost a necessary criteria for any new, new attempt in this space now. But it sounds to me, Ray, that in the moments where DuPont contemplated taking the bio route as much, as there was a sustainability narrative, there was genuine commercial competitive advantage that was being sought. It wasn’t, doesn’t strike me. This was sustainability for the sake of sustainability.
RM: That’s correct. It was really about getting the lowest cost PDO. And we had at least on the back of the envelope, we had determined that if we were successful at scaling up the metabolic pathway that we had been researching in our central research, that we would have a PDO cost that was below what the best chemical could produce.
RM: And so, it’s, this was the game changer. And obviously you have, it’s nice to have both a cost and a good sustainability story. So obviously for marketing purposes that was certainly a plus.
RM: But it was all about cost. That was the main driver. And we had to beat the Shell process, which ultimately, we did.
CB: When we look at when you look at those circumstances around a cost, a cost driver and we look where we stand today in 2021 with, you know, an absolute smorgasbord of routes to bio-based products now.
CB: It still strikes me that it has to be cost driven in the first instance.
RM: Yeah. Especially for, you know, this is a commodity chemical. This is not a specialty like a pharma or, you know, a surfactant or something, that’s a specialty. So, you had you had to basically in the grand scheme of things, you had to have a polymer that was cheaper than nylon. And by that, I mean nylon 6, because that’s the one that’s most prevalent in the marketplace. We knew the nylon 6 was the target. We had to be able to beat nylon 6.
CB: So, you had to beat nylon 6 in fibre performance, but you had to beat 1,3- PDO in production cost.
CB: Well, so that’s actually two problems you had to solve, not just one.
RM: That’s actually only two of many. The problem is, and this is what’s really the insight that we develop fairly early on, once we had access to our own fibre grade PDO, and the problem is it’s not a drop in to make the polymer or the fibrer. The assumption that Shell made, which was turned out to be extremely erroneous, was that it was like PET, which of course, bottles and carpet ,of fibre, you know, for fabrics, is widely known. PET technology is quite ubiquitous, but it doesn’t work the same way. And so, we had to figure that out. And as a result, we developed a lot of know-how and a lot of patents. We had over 100 patent families for making polymer, making fibre, making fabrics, even dyeing, and finishing the fabrics. It’s all different. It’s not a drop in. And when we realised that we knew we had the secret sauce to beat Shell in the long run because they didn’t have that know-how.
CB: So it’s interesting that when we move into the discussion around fibre and the tech transfer elements of the fibre..
CB: …the conversation’s moved from doing a chemical equivalent 1,3 versus 1,3- PDO. You’ve now moved into a what I might call a functional equivalence competition. You’re trying to deliver a fibre which is chemically different to perform the same or better as the nylon 6-based fibre. So how does that play or how did that play out, I should say? How did that play out on the journey from a tech transfer perspective, where not only the internal learning, but just the transfer to customers and getting it running on customer equipment and getting them on board.
RM: Well, there were several, there were several platforms that we had to do technology transfer for. The first was the PDO itself. When we, when we did the deal ultimately with Degussa, when we actually acquired their technology, which was, it went from a joint venture to an actual acquisition.
CB: Oh, okay.
RM: So, we had them build a plant for us in Wesseling, Germany, next to their bigger acrolein facility, and we had to transfer to them the knowledge of how to make fibre-grade intermediates. We were making the polymer, we had the polymer facilities, but in order to have fibre produced from that polymer, we had to be able to teach licensees how to make fibre and fabrics, and how to dye and finish them. So, all that know-how that we developed internally, we had to document and transfer that to our licensees. That was a big technology transfer problem.
CB: So, I’m curious about the human dimension in that because there’s so much stuff, so much, you know, capability, tacit knowledge. How did the human dynamic of being a licensor work for a company that was predominantly a maker of things, not so much a licensor of things?
RM: That’s right. It was, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you an interesting story that’s related to that human dynamic. You’re when you’re trying to license a technology to a company that already makes fibre. They think they already know all they need to know. And we were talking to a, I’ll not use the name, but a very large, well-known Japanese polyester fibre company, and they said ‘We don’t need you to teach us how to make fibre, we know how to do that. What we need you to do is, and we can make our own polymers, so just send us a sample of PDO and we’ll take it from there.’ And we said what we had to make a point. So, we said, ‘Okay, fine, we’ll send you a sample.’ We sent them PDO the next time we met with them. They said, ‘How do you make polymer? We can’t make it’. And I said, ‘Well, that’s part of the knowledge that we’ll license you. Well, that’s a technology we’ll teach you.’ ‘Well, then we’ll buy your polymer. We’ll make our own fibre.’ So, I sent them some polymer, and they came back and said, ‘We can’t make fibre. It’s not right. It doesn’t work.’ And they said, ‘How do you do that?’ And I said, ‘That’s the know-how. That’s part of the license.’ And eventually we got to a point where they said, ‘Okay, send us fibre and we’ll make fabrics.’ They couldn’t do that either. I showed them fabric samples that we had made, and they were unbelievably nice. I mean, they were soft and stretchy and beautiful fabrics. And they said, ‘That’s what we want.’ And I said, ‘That’s what we license you to know how to do.’ And that’s sealed the deal.
CB: Right, how long did that process take?
RM: A year and a half.
CB: I would think, given the cultural differences, that’s quite quick.
RM: Well, yeah, it was, but then they realised that, you know, we were moving on and they were going to be left out. And so, they, you know, they said, okay, we want to bite the bullet. We did, we did also in our licensing strategy, we committed to only licensing two companies in each major market. So, we basically were offering them a semi-exclusive. And so, there was a big incentive for them, this is the newest thing, you know, since sliced bread right. So,they had to get on board. They didn’t want to be left behind. So, there’s a kind of a push-pull. Right. And it worked out really nicely. And now the business you know has been successful for almost two decades.
CB: Yeah. It’s, what’s fascinating about that, setting aside the, you know, the Japan-US business culture differences, just sitting that to one side, you just touched on a point there right about, it’s push-pull. So, you actually need customers who want the technology no matter how good it is.
CB: And when you move into a licensing…
RM: In the fibre business, Cameron, it’s just there’s not a lot of new stuff. It you know, it’s decades in between new major new products. And so, you know everybody, and it’s a very much a commodity business. And so, everybody’s looking for the next big thing. And they want to be, you know, first in line to offer that. And so, here’s something that, you know, coming from a company like DuPont that had the reputation of delivering, you know, the goods. So, they didn’t want to be left out. And so, but they also obviously tried to use their own know-how as a leverage. And we, you know, basically convinced them that wouldn’t work, that they had to short circuit that by trusting us to deliver the knowhow.
CB: At the risk of asking a commercially sensitive question, did they end up paying more because they actually lost their leverage by demonstrating they couldn’t deploy the technology?
RM: Uh, well, from their standpoint, I’m sure they thought they paid more for that.
CB: That’s a nice answer.
RM: We got what we thought we wanted.
CB: Okay, that was a very nice answer, Ray. Thank you. And I gather that both parties lived happily ever after.
RM: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Okay, that’s good. With…
RM: It helped to have 100 patents, too. Yeah.
CB: No, it always helps to have hundred. It’s good to start with one. Imagine 100 is 100 times better with the journey there, Ray, a lot of learning in terms of the transfer all the way along the value chain from the monomer, all the way through to the fabric. I just would like to briefly return to that, that first meeting, in all those first meetings within DuPont and now of this, this fable, I can call it, of the nylon-a-saurus. And it was, in fact, a mutual friend of ours, Mike O’Shea, that first mentioned it to me. Can you tell us about the nylon-a-saurus?
RM: And that’s an interesting…it’s a very funny story, but it’s actually true. Which makes it even funnier. When Shell first announced that they were going to be launching Corterra™ into the carpet industry, they went to a carpet show in Las Vegas. Basically, it was a large flooring show, a conference where people would bring their newest products, and they had a booth in Las Vegas where they had, you know, samples of Corterra™ carpet and so forth. And I made a point to go to the show, you know, and they knew who I was because we’d already had discussions with them in Houston about trying to work together or at least get access to their PDO. And so, they knew that I represented the nylon business. So, I go up to the to the booth and the guys that are standing there at the booth, their eyes go wide like, ‘oh my God’. I go up to them and I say, ‘Guys, how are you doin? How’s things going?’ And I was very friendly. And there was this nylon-a-saurus that they were giving out to potential customers. It was a little green nylon dinosaur, nylon-a-saurus dinosaur. And I said, ‘That’s a cute little giveaway. Can I get some of them?’ And they said, ‘Why would you want that? Because you’re nylon.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think that’s kind of cute. I’d like to show my management.’ And they said, ‘Okay’, they offered to send me a dozen and I, and I told them, you know, I was, I was hoping they would be successful with their launch because that was how nylon management would take them seriously, if they were successful. And they were like, ‘I can’t believe you’re wishing us success. You’re the competitor. ‘I took these nylon-a-saurus’, a dozen nylon-a-saurus’ to the global nylon leadership meeting, the next one that we had. And I handed them out. Each person in the room was offered a nylon-a-saurus, and in the storyline that went with it was, this is what your competitor thinks of you. That you’re a dinosaur. Uh, now, the worldwide leader of nylon refused to take his. He was offended, right? Yeah, but the rest of them thought that was pretty cute. And it was. It was a wakeup call.
CB; Putting the challenge in front of them.
RM: That’s right. And for a while, that was very successful in motivating the internal management.
RM: There’s a caveat to that because Shell, they faltered later on. And the nylon, some of the nylon management wanted to stop our program. Well, they’re not going to be successful. We don’t need to do this. But fortunately, about that time is when the the DuPont management decided to spin off the fibre business.
CB: So, it ended up getting isolated away from the fibre business.
RM: Right. So, what happened was, we got we got we remained in DuPont and they went off to Invista.
CB: And so, you got buffered from the downstream thinking and could just focus on the monomer and the opportunities for the monomer.
RM: Yeah. And so, we started talking at that point. We started talking to the major carpet companies that had been working with Shell. Shell had been disappointing them with the quality of the fibre, the quality of the polymer, I should say, because they were trying to make the carpet companies were making their own fibre. And we came in and said, we can offer you better quality polymer. Better know-how for making fibre and let us prove it. And we did. And as a result, we got the business and Shell didn’t.
CB: And that started to eat, eat away their profitability quite quickly, I imagine.
RM; Yes. That was their downhill slope towards exit.
RM: Was still with that, they were still using the Degussa polymer at the time. Yeah. And when we brought in the bio, when we announced that we had met our goals, and we were building a plant. And when they started, you know, launching the bio instead of the chemical, that was pretty much the end of it. That same year, we commercialised the bio-PDO is when Shell exited PTT.
CB: Wow. So, it really so, so notwithstanding all of the best laid plans, and all of the good reasons, and all of the great technology, and the efforts undertaken by people ,after you’ve done everything right, there’s always a bit of luck left over. And it sounds like all that luck broke the right way.
RM: Yeah, it was certainly a certain amount of serendipity that things were coming together. But we had a great team, and they were really motivated too.
CB: Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s not, it’s not to do, not at all to diminish just everything that you’ve shared with us, but, you know, to have that moment where it’s in question and then the business gets carved off so it can’t impact the, the trajectory, you know, you, those moments are entirely serendipitous. You could argue after the highs of getting the biopic out, you took a slightly broader role again with that global role across biomaterials and specialties. Was that being that just a natural extension of the platform, or did that open up a whole new universe of possibilities for you?
RM: Well, it was it was really, it was a build on the PDO success in two ways. One is we had the PDO and we had excess capacity at the time. So, what else can we do with it? But also, you know, we had, you know, I had, my team had developed the experience of doing this. And not many people have the experience of launching a new business at DuPont. It’s kind of a, you know, the old staid, you know,’ this is the way it is. It’s always been this way’.
RM: It’s a blocking and tackling and, you know, just doing your business. But business development is, especially new technology like this is very different. And not many people had had the experience of doing that.
CB: Well, arguably not many people have that experience, period, Ray.
RM: Well, that’s true too. But I used to say to when I was giving talks about this, that the difference between being a good business guy, you know, doing your thing within a business, is rowing, like rowing a boat on a on a lake. And business development for launching a new business is like whitewater rafting. They’re not the same at all.
CB: Other than they involve water and paddles. Well, yeah, I’ve not heard that said before, but that does ring true. I have to say that does ring true. So, how does whitewater rafting go for a year and a half inside DuPont, which for all intents and purposes, is full of terrific rowing crews.
RM: Yeah. Um, well, it was not, it was uncomfortable, it was uncomfortable for a while. There were times when we knew we had the technology to make good carpet fibre and therefore, you know, outstanding carpet better than nylon. We had the data, we had the patent. We knew exactly what we had, but then what? The flooring business did not want us to push into the flooring area. Those were their customers.
CB: Didn’t want to disrupt the status quo.
RM: Right. And, you know, DuPont had this great brand, Stain Master. It was viewed as a nylon carpet fibre, Stain Master nylon carpet fibre. And how could we go into the market and say, you know, ‘Stain Master is not the best? Now we’ve got this other one.’ They didn’t want to have to do that. So, they didn’t want me talking to their customers.
CB: It’s really, that’s really fascinating in in the world of, you know, in the innovations world that we live in and perhaps its modern version over the last, you know, 5 or 10 years, devouring your earlier prototypes and earlier products and the constant moving of your value proposition is stock in trade.
RM: So. Yeah. So, so how you define your business? And so, the people that were in the nylon flooring business, they define their business as selling nylon rather than selling flooring.
CB: So that’s the railways versus transport analogy, isn’t it.
RM: Yeah, it’s a good example. So, when they spun off the nylon business as Invista, all of a sudden I was no longer constrained. DuPont still owned Invista at the time, but it was up for sale. So, but the but it was a separate company and, but as you know, as in order to be collegial, I invited the nylon people, for that, in this particular case, Mohawk, to come visit with me to visit Mohawk management. Because now I could talk to them about, about Sorona® and, you know, about making carpet from it. And so, I invited him to come along, and I had two samples in my briefcase. One was a… and they were carpet samples that we had made in our pilot facility in Dalton, Georgia. That’s the carpet capital of the world. Dalton Georgia.
RM: And we had two samples. They were made identically – the same construction, same density of fibre and the same twist level. Everything was the same. The only difference was one was made with Sorona®, and one was made with nylon. And I had them labelled on the back but put them face up on the floor on the table and said, you know, ‘Pick the one you like best.’ This was to the, you know, the Mohawk management, ‘Pick the one you like best and then turn it over’. So, they were all over it, you know, feeling and touching it, you know, testing the bulk and all that. And they liked this one over here better than that one. I said, ‘That’s fine. Flip it over.’ It was Sorona® and they their eyes, you know, almost popped out of their heads.
CB: I’ll bet.
RM: And the guy from the nylon business means back then, you know, it was Invista. Now that guy was astounded. And later in the, when we were leaving, you know, privately, he told me he’d been told by his management that this Sorona® was no good. Yet obviously that’s not true. I said, ‘Why aren’t WE doing this?’ You know, it was a, you know, obviously too late by then, but ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s not nylon.’
CB: Yeah. It’s a fascinating story of resistance to change, isn’t it.
RM: Right. And so, this is the message I would give anybody who’s defending an existing business against innovation in that business. If you don’t replace yourself, someone else will do it. Going back to the technology transfer aspect, it could not have been successful if we were not able to first develop the technology, because the know-how is really critical, and be able to transfer that successfully. We had to teach Mohawk how to make carpet fibre, and we had to teach them how to dye the carpet because it’s different.
CB: Yeah. Different dyeing technique.
RM: So we put a guy, we embedded a guy, in their factory for about a year.
CB: Okay. Just as a tech transfer manager.
RM: Yeah. And well, of course we had documented everything.
CB: I’m really curious to explore. So you mentioned earlier you felt that discomfort when you’re the whitewater rafter in a room full of rowers, and then you headed off to Verdezyne. So, you’ve gone from a major multinational chemical company to what was ostensibly a start-up.
RM: Yeah, yeah, it’s a big culture change.
CB: How did you find the culture change, Ray?
RM: Actually, the way we did business development within DuPont was kind of like a start-up. You mean you, we had to fight. you know, not only the external, but the internal battles. We had to pull together as a group, make sure we made progress. And, you know, we were pretty much on our own. And so, the transition for me personally to Verdezyne from DuPont was really not that that difficult.
CB: How interesting. What you did at DuPont translated nicely into the, into the universe of Verdezyne and, and, and the start-up community.
RM: Yeah. In terms of the, in terms of the work ethic and the way you approach it, of course, the resources are different.
RM: That was the that was the biggest difference because Verdezyne being a venture capital funded company, you know, you didn’t have unlimited, well, virtually unlimited… And that’s not true even today, but DuPont had so many more resources. And if you had a need for an expert in a specific area, you know, you knew where to go to Verdezyne if you didn’t have it there, you didn’t have it.
CB: Yeah, you had to fill in the gap somehow.
RM: Right. So that was the other that was the biggest problem. And then of course, you’re always fighting to get more money in a start-up, whereas in DuPont, yeah, you do have to fight for money. That’s basically- but it’s an easier process. It’s an internal process.
CB: Okay. So, the access to the access to internal capital, in a corporate sense, was a lot easier than access to capital through a venturing sense.
RM: Yeah, once you had success under your belt, then, you know, DuPont’s more than willing to bet on a winner.
RM: And so. Well, once you got past that critical point where, okay, it’s obviously going to be successful, they’ll keep funding it. But with a venture capital funded company, Verdezyne, the story for Verdezyne is they got a they got a major infusion of capital to build a plant in Malaysia.
RM: And we had the technology already developed. It was everything was working fine. We had customers who had qualified the product, and we were building the facility. By then I had, I had retired from Verdezyne, but that they were well along in constructing that facility. They needed another ,I think it was $15 million to finish the plant. And the major owner, the major partner was the Malaysian company that, that was basically providing the, you know, the local talent and they would get in trouble with the palm business, palm oil business, apparently that was you know, profits were down quite a bit. They said, ‘Well, we just can’t we can’t see adding more money.’ And the other venture capital representatives said, ‘Well, if you’re not willing to add money, then we’re not willing to add money.’
CB: Oh, no.
RM: And they ran out of money. The plant was 95% built.
RM: Was not a technology failure or market failure. They just got cold feet. Unbelievable.
CB: So, if notionally there’s a 95% completed plan still sitting there.
RM: Well, it’s been broken up and sold.
RM: The technology’s been sold to a German outfit also. So, it’s coming back. Eventually, I think you’ll see that Verdezyne technology utilised commercially. But. but we lost, you know, when that last, you know, getting it over the goal line, that last little bit, you know, if DuPont had done it, it would have been, it would have been, so they would have been chastised, but they would have been given the money. The biggest difference with Verdezyne versus DuPont, just, you know, we were Verdezyne was developing the technology to make plant-based oils into dodecanedioic acid, DDDA, we call it right. That’s used in high performance nylons mainly 6/12. And what Verdezyne could not do that DuPont could have done, was to make polymer and make parts and show parts made from nylon 6/12, where the 12 was bio-based. But what Verdezyne were going to do was, here’s the triple to the intermediate. Would you please test it in your polymer and parts, and confirm for us that it works, like your current supply? So, you’re at their mercy now, in terms of will they do it, and what timeline will they follow?
CB: Yeah. Yeah. And what sort of hooks will I get into you in order to do that for you?
RM: Yeah, there always is discussion. It’s a little awkward at first because they want to get exclusivity and in a small company, you just can’t give away exclusivity.
CB: No. Absolutely not.
RM: This is another thing about biotechnology that people need to understand when they’re when they’re talking about making a drop-in replacement. In our case, PDO was not really a drop-in replacement. It’s a new material. But if you’re making triple DA or you’re make a dipping acid or something else, you’ve got the established quality in the market. They can buy quantities of that material, they know it’s going to work, and they’ve been doing it for years. When you come in with a biomaterial that’s made from a different process, and even though you can do the analytical and it’s, it seems to be the same analytically, it’s only what you’re measuring that’s the same. The question is always there. What is else is in there that you’re not measuring? You know, if you got a chain stopper, they’re going to limit the molecular weight for a polymer. I mean, you don’t know that. And you might have a colour former that comes from the bio route but doesn’t exist in the chemical route. Not knowing and not being able to make your own polymer and fibre or whatever, puts you at a disadvantage because you’re basically saying, I’ve got something that I think works. It looks like analytically it’s similar to what you’re now using, but I can’t guarantee it unless you test it and prove it to yourself.
CB: Yeah, Ray, it’s been an absolute treat talking to you and some of the stories you’ve shared of your own personal journey through the bio, through the bio product space, have been really appreciated and quite extraordinary. You’ve shared a few thoughts along the way. Is there a final thought that you’d like to share with us that that, you know, traps for beginners or reflections on what’s happened over the last 30 or 40 years on this journey?
RM: Yeah. It comes down to the difference between my experience at a big company like DuPont and a small company like Verdezyne. Big companies have the inertia to overcome. So, it takes a pretty serious threat to an existing business for them to get motivated. Whereas small companies, they don’t have a threat, they have an opportunity. So, the trick in the big company is to start viewing these things as opportunities for growth and be willing to replace yourself, if that’s what it takes. For small companies, it’s how do you get the resources and how do you get the industrial experience into your team? Because it’s not just about the metabolic engineering of the organism and the fermentation. It’s about how the product’s used in the market.
CB: No. An excellent thought to finish on where the challenge of overcoming inertia and the difficulties of that versus another person’s opportunity to actually go in and tackle that market.
CB: Great note to finish on. Ray, thanks so much for joining us on Tech Transfer Talk. A delight to have you. Really terrific of you to share all those insights. Thank you.
RM: Enjoyed it. Thank you. Take care of yourself.
CB: Yeah. Thanks a lot.