Agri-biotech Entrepreneur Keeps Busy With Two Venture Funds

Published in UT San Diego, April 20, 2015

Most biotech entrepreneurs are not known for their quick wit and humor. But I know one who could easily sit in for Jon Stewart or Jimmy Fallon any day of the week.

Meet Jerry Caulder. Often referred to as the father of agricultural biotechnology, he is without question one of the most visionary and hilarious of his breed, and when I heard that he was currently involved with two venture funds, I called him up to verify the information. His answer was: “Barb, I’m only 73, it takes more than one fund to keep me going.”

In 1984, Caulder moved to San Diego, where he became the chairman and CEO of Mycogen, then a startup plant sciences company. After an initial public offering, in 1998, it was sold to Dow Sciences for more than $1 billion market cap.

Now he spends his time as managing director of Kapyon Ventures, which develops technology spun out from global research institutes in the plant science area, and he is also chairman of Finistere Ventures, a more traditional fund. Both are focused on the development of companies that hope to transform modern agriculture by increasing productivity and nutrient use efficiency.

Jerry, who grew up in the upper part of the Mississippi Delta, is hard to pin down to one topic at a time, so the interview was wide ranging and included his colleague Han Chen, whom he calls the “smartest person I’ve ever worked with.”

I asked Caulder why he is still so engaged when he could spend all of his time playing golf.

His answer: “My father always said live life like you’ll die tomorrow and learn as if you will live forever. My father was a sharecropper and also was one of the brightest guys I’ve ever known. My parents were hardworking people who knew that education was the way out of poverty.”

He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri that provided a scholarship and a research-teaching position. Next, he joined chemical giant Monsanto in St. Louis where he managed commercial and product development for new products. That led to his involvement with Mycogen in San Diego.

He believes that San Diego is a good place for startups but worries about the regulatory climate and state taxation policies for the long-term.

“Science doesn’t have any borders. Companies go where they can raise money and stay where they are appreciated,” he said.

The establishment of Kapyon came out of time he spent in New Zealand, where there were a lot of promising technologies and scientists who weren’t interested in commercialization. “I suggested that they spin out the technology, and we would establish companies in the U.S. where the market is bigger. (New Zealand’s population is only 4.5 million). The fund was started with $9 million in 2005.

“We thought that there had to be a better way of getting technology out of universities and research institutes. Traditionally you license the technology, you start a company, you end up with about 100 employees, and you reduce the technology to practice, and then you sell the company. What we do is let the scientists continue their research at the university, they get funded and then when the technology is ready for prime time, they get their stuff spun out, without having to write grants,” he said.

Finistere was started with a $40 million fund in 2005 and closed on another $150 million in February. The focus is investments in the “impossible” across the agricultural and food value chains.

The ultimate vision is big. “We are facing very real problems — drought, climate change, increasing population, decreased arable land — that have very real solutions — from biotech and not just what we are working on — that unfortunately are being stifled by a very unrealistic fear among the general public. We want choices in our food, which I support. However, when we demonize technologies that can feed the world, not just the most affluent cities, we are slowly taking away those choices from the next generation,” said Chen, managing director of Kapyon Ventures. “Water is our most important resource, more so than oil. I hope that necessity will open up a very transparent and ultimately collaborative conversation in society around the role that biotech will and needs to play.”

The Delta is home to the blues, to William Faulkner and to Jerry Caulder. Good company.

Rule No. 399

You are what you eat.

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