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A Ribbon Cutting

Prep Work (photo by Yvonne Lai)

This weekend was the ribbon cutting for the enzymatic biodiesel plant that I played a large role in creating over the course of the last 4 years (regretful patent holder, principle investigator, lab monkey, grant writer, grunt laborer, most things in between). The research process is the most exciting and fulfilling experience I've ever engaged in, and though I'm not doing it now I will return to it someday (hopefully soon).

On the other hand, the traditional process of commercialization which involves protecting intellectual property (via lawyers, contracts, and hours upon hours of bullshit) to convince the state to guarantee your profits (that is what patents are, after all) was one of the worst and most depressing experiences of my life which I will never engage in again.  I tried to make it open source but failed.

This ribbon cutting symbolizes both of these events, and for that reason I was a bit conflicted.

The technology we developed is really cool - it's an elegant method for removing water from oil and, more generally, for maintaining a constant amount of 2 or more liquids in a reaction given that those liquids have specific properties (vapor pressure, solubility, etc.). It could have applications in everything from biodiesel to detergents to motor oil and probably other stuff we haven't figured out yet. It's especially useful when the reaction uses enzymes (as ours does) or other sensitive compounds.

Don't get me wrong – this is just one very small idea, but it could positively impact our little biodiesel industry and that's enough to be exciting to me.

I was lucky that after I left, I had excellent partners in Xiaohu, Rachel and Paul who are finishing the job that we all had worked so hard on. Their progress was inspiring to see. We also worked with researchers at Novozymes (Per, Anders, and others) who know more about enzymes than just about anybody in the world. Put simply, they are silent superstars making the world better.

A cut ribbon (photo by Yvonne Lai)

The ceremony itself was a platform for people to display their support by patting themselves on the back. It involved Senators, congresspeople, executive directors, and other such folks who signed letters of support and gave money. It probably should have involved more welders, scientists, and engineers. It seems that whoever controls the money and credibility also gets to control the story. If money and credibility were distributed differently, a completely different story would have be told.

But for now the crowds gathered, some people talked while other people listened. Caged information was paraded about by those who caged it, and a slick story was told.

Tell it while you can.

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