Entrepreneurial Insights Class: Tom Stephenson, CCO of Zymergen

Author: Caitlyn Ward

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This semester in our Entrepreneurial Insights class we are welcoming speakers from all areas of the entrepreneurial world. Tom Stephenson, CCO of Zymergen, came to speak to us this past Friday for our first class. Zymergen is aiming to disrupt the petrochemical industry by developing products inspired by nature based on fermentation. Zymergen (pronounced ZY-merge-in), a combination of the Greek “zymology,” the study of fermentation, and “gen” for gene, is first targeting three major markets: electronic adhesives, home & health products and agriculture. Tom spoke about his journey leading to this current entrepreneurial venture, how Zymergen aims to disrupt the market and what it’s like to work in a startup.

After graduating from Wharton, Tom moved back to his native California where he started a self-car wash business. Though the business ultimately failed, Tom moved on to venture capital, followed by a 20-year career at McKinsey & Co. Drawing from a breadth of experience, he now leads commercialization at Zymergen. He shared passion and people make the best businesses, and to always ask yourself “Is the business I think I’m building the one I’m building,” an ode to building a team that will execute a winning idea.

Tom noted that small companies often offer the best opportunities to learn many different skills, and that he continues to learn from everyone at the company. When asked about how Zymergen decided which industries to target, he said market size and the development of molecules were important factors in the decision. With any company, however, though especially startups, it is important to be consistent and transparent on what is defined as progress and success. When trying to disrupt a trillion-dollar industry, progress and success are crucial. With nature on your side, they are certain.