Champions of Change

Past FEW Award of Excellence winners reflect on decades of research advocacy and leadership in this feature article that appears in the June print edition of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Tom Bryan | May 24, 2017

Marty Andreas, the late Archer Daniels Midland Co. executive, once followed Charles Abbas out of a boardroom after a fervent discussion about, of all things, thermophiles.

Abbas, a veteran research team leader at ADM, had just implored the company’s board of directors to renew its support of a thermophilic fermentation project. The executives were ready to drop the work before Abbas spoke up. “I went in and told them—I mean, I really told them with conviction—that the work should go on,” Abbas said. “After I left, Marty came out, shook my hand and said, ‘The board passed it. They believed in what you said because of how you said it. They saw your passion.’”

That moment, for Abbas, is illustrative of the conviction researchers must convey when they champion ideas. “Believe in what you say,” he says. “Give people something to adhere to. A lot of researchers don’t think it’s their job to sell ideas. I disagree. If it’s worth fighting for, you need to stand up and show people that you’ll own it.

Passion alone, however, isn’t enough. Abbas says he’s been an effective innovation champion during his three decades with ADM because he’s built rapport with plant personnel and gained the trust of company executives. Abbas practices what Steve Lewis, Poet’s chief science officer, might call poised advocacy. It’s great to be a vocal defender of your work, Lewis says, so long as your obsession doesn’t lead you off a cliff. “We all have to be kept honest,” he says, channeling author Peter Senge’s concept about balancing advocacy with inquiry. “If you consistently balance those two things—advocacy and inquiry—it will keep you honest. And you’ll move up the learning curve faster as you modify your conjecture and hypotheses with balance in mind, rather than simply advocating and ignoring.”

A temperament for balanced advocacy is just one of the many characteristics that define Lewis, Abbas and other past recipients of the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop’s Award of Excellence. Since 2000, the award has been given to accomplished researchers and technical professionals who exude competency, leadership, vision and determination in the face of scientific adversity. Above all, FEW award winners understand the power of professional constancy—like water shaping bedrock, innovation requires time and pressure—and job jumpers these guys are not.

As Poet scientists and engineers pour themselves into the company’s 20 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, Lewis and his team almost embrace the toll that disruptive innovation levies on its originators. While Project Liberty, a Poet-DSM joint venture, is now producing commercial quantities of cellulosic ethanol and making very real progress, Lewis says it has been a “tough, tough road … but our people never get discouraged.”

Retired USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist Kevin Hicks, the 2013 Award of Excellence winner, says an inexhaustible spirit can be useful in science, which tends to deliver a dozen failures for every one success. “You’re not going to walk into a lab and change the ethanol industry in 15 minutes,” Hicks says. “You’re going to spend the time it takes to make sure your work holds up, that it’s repeatable and stands the test of time. There’s nothing quick or easy about that.” 

In fact, it can take a decade to produce transformative innovation, yet today’s young scientists are unlikely to work for the same company, or even the same industry, for half that time. While researchers like Abbas, Lewis and Hicks remained faithful to a single employer for decades, today’s young scientists are less prone to occupational permanence, and that worries Abbas. “One problem is a lack of rapport,” he says. “Rapport is never developed if you keep moving around.”

Abbas, who has been studying biomass conversion since he was in graduate school in the 1970s, says he has fulfilled his professional ambitions at ADM over the course of 27 years by “believing in the work” and balancing the company’s long-term aspirations with its short-term needs. “I’ve basically spent my career chasing the same thing, but I always believed it was something I needed to accomplish in my life,” he says. “I did it by thinking short-term, mid-term and long-term. And short-term activities have sometimes dominated my time—working on the plants—but there were always bigger, longer-term projects in the distance. 

Combine and Conquer
Most of Abbas’ career successes have been achieved in collaboration. Whether it was internal or external teamwork, he says, people who knew each other always worked well together. “It was rewarding to get buy-in from our business unit simply because they knew me and trusted me,” he says. “It’s the same with the plant people. I have credibility with them.”

By leading teams over time and through myriad experiences, Lewis says, research managers become less like musicians and more like orchestra conductors. “It’s somewhat of a myth that innovation is the result of the lone person working in a lab,” he says, citing author Steven Johnson’s premise about the recombinant nature of innovation, which supposes that great ideas are borrowed, adapted and made better by many people over time. “It’s a back-and-forth process. So much innovation that happens today is recombinant. We’re always recombining ideas—figuring out what they are and aren’t consistent with—in a constant flux of confirmation and refutation.”

Lewis warns that the benefits of recombinant research must be weighed against the risks of information overload, however. “Today, information is increasing at an exponential rate,” he says. “The problem is, the number of spurious correlations, or incorrect insights, that you can develop also goes up. So, the counterintuitive truth of living in a world with so much information is that, in some respects, innovation has gotten harder because we’re trying to find needles in bigger and bigger haystacks.”

The notion of recombinant innovation isn’t lost on John Caupert, executive director of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center in Edwardsville, Illinois, which has been a virtual idea incubator since its inception in 2003. “We’ve always preferred to be in a position of collaboration than competition, if for no other reason than when you compete somebody loses,” says the 2015 Award of Excellence winner. “When you collaborate, everybody involved has an opportunity to win.”

Hicks, who worked at USDA-ARS for 35 years, shares Caupert’s view of collaboration. “I didn’t work for a company,” he says. “I worked for the people, and what I most enjoyed was assembling teams from the public and private sectors—companies, universities and our teams at USDA. Those groups accomplished so much more than any one of us could have done alone.”

Hicks says science is about understanding nature, and scientists are at their best when they are pursuing discovery with few boundaries. That style of work defined NCERC in its early years when startup biofuels companies virtually booked out the center. “We were working with guys who practically came up with ideas in their garage,” Caupert says. “They came here to learn more than to have us produce specific deliverables. It was a very collaborative era and it led to many discoveries along the way—improvements to processes, products, approaches, you name it.”

That shifted in 2009 when the U.S. economy went south and biofuels profitability dropped off. “The pendulum swung hard and our client base went to the opposite end of the spectrum,” Caupert says. “We went from working with venture-backed startup companies to working with global household names with deep pockets. Our new clients had already done years of product and technology development on their own. They were coming to us for third-party verification of their products and technologies. They came in with almost a recipe of work. For those companies, we were more of a service provider than a collaborative partner.”

Today, some of the open-ended research is coming back to NCERC. “The startups are starting to return,” Caupert says. “It’s a nice blend of collaboration, discovery and commercial services.”

Risk Serendipity 
Working for two of the world’s largest ethanol producers requires Lewis and Abbas to practice mostly applied research, rather than fundamental biofuels science. “For us, it’s more about taking a new or existing technology and adapting, optimizing and scaling it up in a setup that works for ADM,” Abbas says. “It’s about practical improvements that can work in our existing plants.”

Abbas once gave a presentation in Japan, titled “Lost in Translation,” about why things developed at small scale often fail to work at large scale. “The analogy I used was that the guy developing technology at small scale is pushing a rock uphill whereas the guy developing technology at large scale—running fermentations in a million-gallon reactor—is on top of the hill rolling the rock down.”

Abbas says years of responding to plant issues not only gave him vast experience but the credibility he needed to get support for projects he valued. “With that sort of earned credibility, you’re no longer an unknown quantity,” he says. “And I was fortunate to have been in an environment where there wasn’t that much aversion to risk. If you had an idea that would help, they were willing to try it. We never had to go through a lot of steps and layering to get things done.”

Lewis agrees that innovation is more likely to flourish within companies that tolerate modest amounts of risk. Working for a large, integrated biofuels company like Poet does, however, place practical limits on risk-prone science. “Everything we do has to take safety, consistency of operations and quality control into account,” he says. “Operations guys don’t necessarily like variation, but it’s our job to sometimes take calculated risks. There’s a balance between innovation and execution, though, and you have to merge them and try to find the sweet spot.”

To illustrate this balance, Lewis uses author Gary Klein’s analogy of up-arrow companies versus down-arrow companies. Down-arrow companies, such as those practicing Six Sigma, focus on reducing mistakes. “They are keenly focused on driving error out of their systems and reducing defects,” Lewis says. “But there is such a focus on minimizing that down arrow that the up arrow never gets a chance to generate anything new. And the up arrow is the thing that generates insights that lead to innovation. So, without inviting up-arrow risk you lose out on some potential for innovation.” 

Lewis says companies need to take risks to stumble on good fortune. 3M, for example, developed Post-It Notes by mistake. “It wouldn’t have happened in the era of Six Sigma, he says. “It was the result of making an adhesive that didn’t work well.”

And serendipity is also real, Lewis says. “It’s the good result you didn’t envision—an unintended consequence that turns out to be more viable than what you were originally searching for. And I think in today’s data-driven world there could be a serendipity deficit. If you’re not hands-on, working with the information, so much of it will just go right by you.”

Author: Tom Bryan
Editor in Chief, Ethanol Producer Magazine