Recent Graduate Is Both Scientist and Entrepreneur
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – A Middlebury alumnus who matriculated during the heyday of the Sunday Night Group and the rise of 350.org said he was torn between two career paths after graduation.
“The question was, do I want to get involved in advocacy and policy pertaining to climate change, or do I want to be a scientist who comes up with technical solutions to climate change issues?”
Bobby Levine, Class of 2008, came back to campus on October 29 as the guest of the Howard E. Woodin Environmental Studies Colloquium, and explained how he has pursued the latter path – the one to science. His 30-minute talk was titled “Life After Middlebury: An Entrepreneur’s Quest.”
While at Middlebury, Levine majored in molecular biology and biochemistry, and experimented with methods of producing biodiesel from algae. He also played a vital role with the Sunday Night Group, which was the leading climate-change activism organization on campus.
Passionate about developing solutions to global problems – particularly clean water, food production, and renewable energy – Levine pursued a PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan where he continued to produce biofuels using hydrothermal reaction chemistry. He completed his doctorate in five years and created ReGenerate, a company that produced compact organic waste stations to convert food waste to compost. Now five years later, Levine is the chief technology officer for Algal Scientific Corporation and both founder and CEO of a second, smaller company called Digested Organics LLC.
For Algal, the summa cum laude Middlebury graduate has developed a proprietary fermentation process that uses the microalgae Euglena gracilis to produce beta glucan, an immunomodulator that can be used to support immune health in animals and humans. Branded by the company as “Algamune,” Algal’s beta glucan “turns on the immune system and helps animals fight infection” without the use of antibiotics, Levine said. In addition, Algal claims its product is the world’s first beta glucan commercially produced from algae.
Digested Organics – Robert Levine’s other firm – provides on-site solutions for reclaiming organic waste, and he said it is where he devotes the majority of his time and energy these days. (He told the audience of faculty and students that he hasn’t taken a paycheck from the start-up company yet.) Digested Organics uses its patented technology to convert organic waste such as manure and food scraps into clean water and clean energy for food service operators, farms, and businesses.
Levine said his Michigan-based digester business is starting to gain a foothold in Wisconsin, the nation’s second-largest dairy state. “When farmers looks at their balance sheets, buying a digester doesn’t necessarily jump to the top of their priority lists. But now with oil prices down, they are thinking, ‘This is cool. This digester can make me revenue from manure.’”
“If there is one thing that’s guaranteed on a dairy farm,” said Levine, “it’s that cows will produce milk and cows will produce manure.” And the revenue stream from a digester that will never be affected by milk prices “can be very comforting to dairy farmers.”
The 29-year old offered words of advice (“lessons learned”) from his experiences as a scientist and entrepreneur, including “be ready to pivot if the market doesn’t like what you are selling,” and “in business it doesn’t matter how good your product is if your customers don’t trust you.” He also urged the audience to “stay true to your core values” no matter what life brings.
– With reporting and photography by Robert Keren