Interviewed by Kevin Kimle: Excerpts
Kevin Kimle: Tell us about what brought you to today with Gross-Wen Technologies.
Martin Gross: During my graduate work at Iowa State University, I invented an algae technology with my major professor, Dr. Wen. The technology is based on research we did, and now we’re commercializing it.
KK: Was it easy to get from initial invention to where the business is today?
MG: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. We invented the technology about seven years ago. The infrastructure at Iowa State University was not there for commercializing new technologies. Since then, new programs like the Ag Startup Engine and ISU Startup Factory have definitely played a role in advancing me as, not just as a scientist-engineer, but as someone that knows how to run a business. It seems like ecosystem here at ISU now is a completely different place than when we started.
KK: Your initial thoughts on Gross-Wen’s business model didn’t turn out?
MG: We invented the technology to grow low-cost algae. Our target was to grow algae for biofuels, but the reality is that biofuels are inexpensive and you couldn't make money using our system to make them. So we really pivoted from trying to use our system just to grow algae to make money, to using our system to treat wastewater. Remove nitrogen, phosphorus from water. The algae is still produced, but it's just a value-added product as part of a wastewater treatment solution. That completely changed the economics of the business compared to a biofuels business model.
KK: Was there a particular moment that you can point to when the insight for this huge pivot came? "We can grow algae relatively low costs, not low cost enough to be in biofuels, but it can actually be a really efficient system for cleaning wastewater?"
MG: There's one moment I can point to. I was at the algae biomass summit in Denver, Colorado. At this event, something like 500 algae researchers get together and talk about their innovations. I met two fellows from the city of Chicago that were looking to use algae to clean wastewater, something that we really hadn't looked into at that point. They looked at our technology and they really liked it as a potential solution. They were looking throughout the world for an algae system that can be used in Chicago wastewater treatment. In the end, they selected our system after comparing it to others. The world leader in wastewater treatment selected Gross-Wen Technologies. That was our big moment.
KK: If wastewater decision makers in Chicago believe in Gross-Wen Technolgies, maybe others will too?
MG: Exactly. That event started on our path of the last four and a half years, focusing on adapting our system to clean water.
KK: It's impossible to go back in time and ask questions like, how might have it turned out had I not went to that conference? By going to the conference and by meeting these folks from Chicago, you had a transformational experience?
MG: It's interesting to think if that conversation didn't happen, it's very likely we wouldn't be sitting here right now.