GrassRoots Biotechnology (Now a part of Monsanto)
Doug Eisner recently sold his company GrassRoots Biotechnology to Monsanto. GrassRoots is an agricultural biotechnology company focused on developing better crops for the biofuels and agricultural markets. In 2007, Doug co-founded GrassRoots with Dr. Philip Benfey, the Chair of Duke's Center for Systems Biology. They grew the company to 25 employees with over $4 million in revenue.
What role did Fuqua play in helping you start GrassRoots?
The company started as a project in Jon Fjeld's Duke New Ventures clinic. The class connected teams of Fuqua students with professors who were interested in commercializing their research. My team was assigned Dr. Philip Benfey's RootArray technology that enabled real-time monitoring of gene expression in plants. We worked with Dr. Benfey to formulate a business plan that formed the blueprint for the company's early development. We formally started GrassRoots when I graduated in 2007.
What was the most enjoyable part of your job?
I got to spend a lot of time with scientists talking with them about their research, which was fascinating. GrassRoots was trying to answer fundamental biological questions about how genes are regulated. It was very interesting to learn about the work and to see what excited and motivated the scientists.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Securing financing was one of our biggest challenges. The time and cost required to develop and commercialize biotech seeds (approximately 12 years and $150 million) closes the market off to small technology companies. There are only six large, multinational seed companies that have the resources necessary to develop and commercialize biotech seeds. We were awarded two federal grants that enabled us to advance our research, but we needed to partner with one of the big six to commercialize our research.
What were some of the interesting aspects about your work?
One of the most interesting aspects of the job involved managing and negotiating the collaboration with Monsanto. The asymmetry of power made negotiations challenging. Clearly, we were not in a position to dictate many terms. In addition, it wasn't always clear who the decision makers were on the Monsanto side. Despite these constraints, we needed to navigate the relationship in a manner that enabled GrassRoots to thrive and maintain our nimble entrepreneurial edge.
What is the best professional advice you've received?
A plan of action is critical, but you need to be open to new ideas and opportunities, willing to change course when appropriate. Our initial plan focused on two areas—gene discovery and gene regulation. After a few years, we realized that we had developed very special capabilities in gene regulation and that we should refocus our energies on this area. Later on, another opportunity arose—applying our gene regulation research from the agricultural field to industrial biotechnology. We again shifted resources to exploit this opportunity.
Aside from your current role, what is your dream job?
In my next job, I'd like to do something similar to GrassRoots, that is to help start and build a company from inception. I like the start-up process because you get to be involved in all areas the business. Ideally, I'd like my next company to be focused on technology.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Outside of work, I spend a lot of time with my family, coaching sports and traveling. I'm still learning to play the guitar, and I enjoy reading and playing sports.
What is the most important thing you learned during your time at Fuqua?
Learning the hard skills like accounting and financial modeling has been very important. However, the most important thing that I learned at Fuqua was how to think critically about business issues. The case method used at Fuqua taught me how to think strategically about management, marketing, finance, and the many issues I faced building GrassRoots.
Who were your favorite professors?
Among the many great professors I had at Fuqua, Professors Jon Fjeld and David Robinson stand out. My company started in Jon's class, and both Jon and David became important advisors to GrassRoots. We benefited enormously from their expertise in entrepreneurship and financing.
What are you favorite Fuqua memories?
My favorite memories involve going through first year with Section 5. We were a team from very different backgrounds with different skills and perspectives. I had been a prosecutor in NYC for eight years, and my section mates included computer scientists, financiers, a robot designer, a psychology professor, the manager of a computer chip factory among many other professions. It was neat to see how the different perspectives contributed to creative and efficient problem solving.
What does Team Fuqua mean to you?
In building GrassRoots, I benefited from the experience and advice of professors and alumni. I will continue to develop my Fuqua network and rely on the counsel of friends and contacts from that network. I hope that I can be as helpful to fellow alumni as they have been to me.