4 Minutes With…Chris Somerville, Director, Energy Biosciences Institute

September 10, 2014 |

SomervilleThere’s a rumor going around that the original technology for LS9 (now, REG Life Sciences) was sketched out by Harvard’s George Church and Berkeley’s Chris Somerville on a cocktail napkin. If true, it would have to be one of the most interesting and valuable artifacts that will some day adorn a Museum of Industrial Biotechnology. For now, reminds us that Chris Somerville is not only the ringmaster behind the Energy Biosciences Institute — originally funded via a famous $500M investment by BP — but a vital force in many of the developments that have come out of the Bay Area in industrial biosciences for years now.

Tell us about your organization and it’s role in the Advanced Bioeconomy.

The EBI is a research institute located at UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana that was started with a $500M commitment by BP in late 2007. Approximately 500 people are associated with EBI, including 130 professors. We are pursuing a broad approach to understanding issues in the area of bioenergy.

Tell us about your role and what you are focused on in the next 12 months.

million mindsAs Director of EBI my main roles are to lead the evolution and execution of the R&D portfolio, and to facilitate effective communication among the EBI leadership team, EBI investigators, BP technical leadership and the institutional administrators of the academic partners.

Many of my current 12 month goals are concerned with implementing scale-up of some of our key discoveries from flask-scale experiments to small pilot-scale. This involves consolidating the work of many separate research streams into an integrated process with much higher levels of control and measurement than typical for bench scale work.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this transition is a shift in focus from basic science to engineering. It is an exciting time in EBI because we can see the real potential for tangible outcomes from years of basic research.

What do you feel are the most important milestones the industry must achieve in the next 5 years?

Achieving steady-state, break even operation of some of the cellulosic biofuels biorefineries would be a milestone worth celebrating.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the Advanced Bioeconomy, what would you change?

I would like to see a carbon tax that is based on a realistic assessment of the environmental and social costs of GHG emissions. I believe that the bioeconomy can and should compete without subsidies or any other interventions once we price in the true cost of fossil fuels.

Of all the reasons that influenced you to join the Advanced Bioeconomy industry, what single reason stands out for you as still being compelling and important to you?

My motivations arise from concerns about climate change and the fact that basing our society on fossil fuels is unsustainable in the long run. I think that the bioeconomy will eventually be a critically important “wedge” in a pie of solutions.

You’ll be speaking at the next ABLCNext conference in San Francisco this November. What’s special about that week for you?

I am interested in hearing about technical progress from others in the field. Part of our mission is to identify the best technology in the field and to spot genuinely new discoveries.

What was your undergraduate major in college, and where did you attend? Why did you choose that school and that pathway? 

My first degree was in mathematics. I grew up about 700 miles north of the US border in a town with unpaved streets. I started in a one-room schoolhouse with nine grades and eventually studied at the University of Alberta because it was the nearest school to my home town.

Who do you consider your mentors?

I have had too many mentors to list. Perhaps the main things I learned from them is that there are lots of people who give freely of themselves to help younger people. I have tried to pass along that spirit during my career as a professor and entrepreneur.

What are 3 books you’d want to have with you, if you were stranded on a desert island.

A book that I find myself talking about is Robert Reich’s recent book “Aftershock: The next Economy and America’s Future”. He presents some numbers about the concentration of wealth in America and then describes how various forces ranging from technical innovation to tax policy have eroded the economic and social position of most people in America.

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Category: Million Minds

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