A Chat with Solazyme’s Jonathan Wolfson at NYU Entrepreneurs Festival
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company, and these were Silicon Valley, risk-taking types. It turned out to work exceedingly well.
The second thing is if you’re making oils, you don’t necessarily have to be a company that’s dedicated to fuel. Along the way we learned we can turn these oils into anything we use oils for today, from food to industrial applications like soaps, to cosmetics, home care products, and laundry detergents.
XC: When you started looking to these other segments, did you get concerned you were going in too many different directions?
JW: That’s always been a serious and semi-valid criticism of Solazyme. Once we developed a platform that allowed us to make oils at large scale, and to tailor those oils, that the number of market opportunities we could go into created a lack of focus.
One of the things that entrepreneurs are forced to do constantly is to trim back lots of really good ideas to keep energy in a relatively narrow band. There’s no question that if you try to do everything, you will fail.
XC: How much of a challenge was it to gather people to work with you on this?
JW: We had to convince a lawyer to do the legal work for us when we were raising money, and get paid only when money was raised. But that lawyer wouldn’t do it unless you convinced them that the idea had currency. We wanted to bring in some advisors so that we could pressure-test the technology and market opportunities. We gave them stock options, but they had to believe those options would be worth something.
If you expand that out, it applies very heavily to employees and partners.
We decided very early on we couldn’t go vertical in most of our markets. We had to focus on our technology core and being able to make things that could improve people’s lives. We brought in a few people in business development in fuels. We were able to form a partnership with Chevron. We also brought in some experts on a consulting basis to help us work with the Pentagon. We ended up forming a huge partnership with the U.S. Navy.
Solazyme didn’t have fuels competency, but we were able to leverage all the people at Chevron and we were able to leverage all the people in the Navy who had tremendous fuels expertise. They told us what we had to make and how. When were looking at personal care, we partnered with Unilever. For paints, we partnered with AkzoNobel.
XC: Are there misconceptions about biofuel and using microalgae in this way that you had to clear up for others?
JW: When we first started, I didn’t know of another company working in microalgae specifically for fuels. Within a year or two, there were five. Within a couple more years, there were over 100. But they were trying to do the technology the way we originally started to do it. It was hard to explain to people that we were doing it differently.
We would go to conferences, and people with companies based on technology we had dismissed would give presentations saying you can’t grow algae in stainless steel. That it leaches zinc from the stainless steel. We would spend hours with potential financing sources explaining that we were doing it every day.
We spent years getting to know analysts at consulting firms, having them come in and look at our technology and follow our progress.
XC: How much of a challenge has it been to scale up what you’re doing? It’s not like developing an app.
JW: There’s a very substantial difference between building a piece of software or a Web-based service and making physical things. There’s an astonishingly big difference. You need to understand that difference when you think about starting a company.
People look at some of the big tech companies and how they pay large amounts for what seems like somewhat unproven technology, applications, or websites. If you’re on the knowledge side of the world, you need constant innovation, but you … Next Page »
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