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Tod Perry Ph.D. ’05, Environmental Sciences and Engineering, went straight from defending his thesis to actively developing an intellectual property and funding strategy for a new company based upon a novel microbiology technology.
While now an alum, the idea for his firm happened when he was still a graduate student working in Gordon McKay Professor Ralph Mitchell’s microbiology laboratory.
Perry translated a process the Mitchell laboratory had developed to preserve historic stone cultural heritage materials and applied it more broadly to tackle a global energy and environmental problem.
What first drew you here?
I had the good fortune of working as a lab technician before matriculating into the degree program. I ended up in Ralph Mitchell’s lab working on the attachment of microorganisms to surfaces.
However, the reason I stayed on and matriculated into the graduate program was because of the applied nature of what we were doing. It wasn’t just looking at mechanisms and physical properties. It was observing what was happening on the surfaces. Are they breaking things down? Are they producing toxins? And is that important?
We talk a lot about integrative research. Can you cite an example in your own experience/work?
Through a Sandia National Laboratories Campus Executive Fellowship, I had the opportunity to study molecular modeling simulations to better understand the atomistic mechanisms of some of the experimental results I have observed. This is a remarkable experience, especially because my thesis combined microbiology and chemistry.
What has winning the Ignite Clean Energy business competition meant?
This award allowed us to take cutting-edge research from the laboratory into the commercial marketplace. I have also been able to realize a dream—blending academics and business in such a way that will ultimately add value to society.
What problem will your new company tackle?
The company will address a $3 billion problem. We use microorganisms to overcome the critical energy problem of mineral scale formation in water pipes. Put simply, mineral plaques build up in pipes that, for example, drive hot water into your radiator, and make the transfer of heat far less efficient. Imagine how that would affect a large office building’s heating system.
What were the first steps in establishing the company?
Since the first-place win in April and after a name change, from Microbial Scale Solutions to the more compelling Acillix Incorporated, I think we’ve made significant progress. I’ve been working hard to get the company up and running by performing proof-of-concept tests, building first prototypes, developing initial sales, establishing markets, pursuing long-term funding opportunities, and broadening the company network of business, scientific, and academic advisors and partners.
What are some of the differences between being a graduate student and being an entrepreneur?
The most challenging part of going from graduate school into starting a business is making decisions in the face of risk, and managing that risk. When you’re in school you plug through problems and usually there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to each. You make decisions based on the success of experiments and iterate. Starting Acillix is a dynamic process where I make decisions that may affect the long-term success and viability of the entire company. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I have to chart the best path I can.
What is a typical day like?
Each day is a completely different set of jobs—performing experiments, refining the business plan, charting a company strategy. I try to meet with everyone I possibly can to see what their insights are. One thing’s for sure: It’s the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.