Most people look at an algae-covered pond and see nothing but scum. Oliver Fetzer ’85 sees opportunity. As CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) in La Jolla, California, Fetzer is leading the charge for a game changer in the energy world, and it all starts with the As, Cs, Ts and Gs that make up algae’s and all living organisms’ DNA. Just as the order of letters gives a word its meaning, the order of the As, Cs, Ts and Gs determines the meaning of the information encoded in a DNA molecule.
For the last 10 years, SGI has been studying algae’s DNA code in order to enhance its biomass and lipid productivity, basically to plump up the algae’s oil content like an engorged tick. SGI has developed an engineered algae strain, but does it have the chops to not only withstand external environmental factors but to proliferate?
That’s exactly what SGI’s California Advanced Algal Facility (CAAF) in the Imperial Valley desert aims to learn. At CAAF’s multiple football field-size ponds, Fetzer’s team is mass-producing the algae strain and studying it to determine its compatibility to environmental factors and its ability to reproduce. Although they have made great strides, Fetzer says, they aren’t ready to deploy just yet. That is forecasted for 2025 in partnership with ExxonMobil. The plan is to roll out the algae biofuel on a commercial scale – 10,000 barrels a day – for airplanes, ships and freight trucks, transport that simply can’t operate on batteries.
“It will cut emissions in half,” says Fetzer. “The great thing is that, by using algae, we are carbon neutral. Algae uses CO2 for food, and then the algae biofuel, when burned, releases the CO2 – a perfect example of recycling. We are also only using saltwater algae; there’s already enough scarcity for freshwater.”
Even better, algae biofuel is a “drop-in fuel,” meaning it can use the existing gas infrastructure so tanks, transport, pumps, etc., will remain the same.
While everything sounds wonderful, as Fetzer says, “In the end, it only matters if it works. Managing biotech projects is incredibly challenging. The odds are often against you, but when it works, it really works. That is my main driver – the prospect of making a big contribution to the planet.”
A Man With a Plan
Even the best laid plans change. With plans to attend Harvard, Fetzer and his family moved to Charleston from Köln, Germany, for his father’s job with Bayer. After arriving in the city, Fetzer paid a visit to the College.
“It was truly happenstance,” says Fetzer. “The biochem major had just been launched. I really liked the strength of the department and its small size.”
It also helped that – unlike other university biochemistry programs, which are often tailored for pre-med – CofC’s program required a full complement of physical sciences, something that was in line with Fetzer’s plans. In Germany, schools have a 13th year for university-bound students so Fetzer was ahead of the game when he came to the U.S.
The College paired him up with an advisor and worked with him to see which courses he could opt out for credit.
“I couldn’t believe how many people got involved with looking at my transcript,” says Fetzer. “They enlisted the head of the German department to look at it, and then the heads of the chemistry, history, biology and English departments took the time to meet with me and create customized tests. It was a phenomenal experience. In the end, I got credit for two years of college, so I tracked in as a junior.”
Embracing the liberal arts of the College, Fetzer enjoyed his non-science classes, including his English literature class, where he once got an A for content and a D for grammar.
“It was then I realized that German is full of run-on sentences,” he laughs.
Fetzer also took advantage of extracurricular activities. He joined the school’s swim team, where he met Mark Greenslit ’85, and the two became fast friends.
“We met at 5 a.m. for morning practices and went to the weight room in the afternoon, plus we were on the road many weekends for competitions, so we knew each other really well,” says Greenslit, who had Fetzer as one of his groomsmen at his wedding.
Both Greenslit and Fetzer had an adventurous spirit and would often take off exploring.
“We biked to the Isle of Palms a few times, which was a little harrowing,” laughs Greenslit, recalling the old Cooper River Bridge, aka Grace Memorial Bridge, with its two-way traffic and narrow lanes of fast-moving cars and trucks. “We also went river rafting and camping in the mountains of North Carolina, and often went windsurfing, including to Cape Hatteras.”
Still, Fetzer’s penchant for science remained at the forefront, in large part due to his father, an organic chemist. Thanks to his father’s career, he experienced incredible opportunities like working at the Bayer factory in Leverkusen, Germany, every summer during his time in college and throughout his doctoral studies.
“Each year I worked in a different department, and many of the people working on the floor have no more than a high school education,” he says. “The experience proved incredibly valuable for me throughout my career; it gave me the grounding to understand what it takes to run a pharmaceutical business.”
His brother, a physician, almost lured him to study medicine, but then he met Henry Donato ’68, the biochemistry professor whose passion and energy cinched his decision to major in biochemistry. Donato, who retired in 2011 after nearly 30 years at the College, fondly recalls Fetzer.
“Among other things, he wanted to know my opinion about his plans for his future,” says Donato. “This was a little unusual in several respects. Unusual in the sense that other students in my classes often did not care to have discussions with me other than to talk about what I might ask on the next test. It was also unusual that Oliver had a plan for his future – a detailed plan. We were blessed to have many talented students at that time – and Oliver was as impressive as any of them, but his maturity and thoughtful planning were unusual in my experience.”
In December 1985, Fetzer became the third biochemistry major to graduate from the College (today, around 17 graduate each year). He then went on to obtain his Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences/medical chemistry from the Medical University of South Carolina and his MBA from Carnegie Mellon University – Tepper School of Business.
“I’m really passionate about the intersection between business and science,” says Fetzer. “I found research for the sake of papers boring. I wanted to see things come to fruition, so I went into management.”
Taking Risks and Saving Lives
After school, Fetzer landed a job with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and fell in love with consulting.
“It was the perfect opportunity to combine business and science to make a difference,” he says.
With BCG, he got to make a difference in Boston, Auckland and Munich, where the BCG staff found him a rental home that would accommodate an important family member – Haley, their German shepherd. And because Fetzer and his wife, Margie, didn’t think Haley would like life in an Asian high rise, they decided upon New Zealand.
After almost nine years, Fetzer left BCG in 2002 to serve as senior vice president of R & D and corporate development at Cubist Pharmaceuticals (now a subsidiary of Merck & Co.), a biopharmaceutical company that targeted pathogens.
Fetzer was one of a handful of C-suite hires slated to set the company up for its transformation from an R & D company to a fully integrated commercial enterprise. Chris Guiffre, chief financial officer and chief operations officer for Pear Therapeutics, was part of the team of four. He joined about nine months prior to Fetzer.
“Oliver came at a time when the company didn’t even know if it would survive,” says Guiffre. “Two Phase 3 trials for our lead drug candidate had failed, and there was a very high likelihood that Cubist would go out of business.”
Still, Fetzer took the risk.
“He took a bet on a company that had a strong plan but was in tough shape,” says Guiffre. “I attribute that to the fact that he was smart, visionary, entrepreneurial, strategic and bold. Also, he’s an incredible mix of genius and heart.”
The team, as Guiffre says, was greater than the sum of its parts. It had a master plan, which was executed with precision. Fetzer’s original role was to negotiate deals with partners, but Guiffre gives him more credit.
“He was a strategist, really the chief architect of the strategy to dig Cubist out of its hole,” he explains.
The end result was a successful antibiotic launch.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Cubicin (daptomycin) to treat skin infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including MRSA or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. When Fetzer assumed the added responsibility of head of research and development, he brought the drug to a new level by testing Cubicin for use against two deadly heart and bloodstream infections. The results proved to be outstanding, and three years after the initial FDA approval, the product expanded its scope.
“I’m incredibly proud of what the team accomplished,” says Fetzer. “No one had been successful in that indication, and the vote by the FDA to approve it was close – 5 to 4.
The people who voted nay wanted more data, but we couldn’t possibly go back. Fortunately, the drug has been very successful. It has saved so many lives – and it becomes even more real when your parent is affected.”
Indeed, it got personal when Fetzer’s father had leg surgery and then developed an infection that could not be successfully treated. It was Cubicin that saved him from losing his leg – or worse.
After all he accomplished at Cubist, Fetzer told his wife that he was ready to make a change and wished they could travel to figure out next steps. Margie’s response: “Why not?”
From 2007 to 2009, the Fetzers and their three children, ages 3, 6 and 8, traveled around the globe, including southern Africa and the South Pacific. Throughout their adventure, the children were homeschooled, their travels enhancing their education.
“We used currencies as part of the learning process, which helped with math,” explains Margie. “We also would give the children a map and show them the hotel and where we planned to go for dinner. They would create a map with coordinates. They loved it because they were part of the team. We did end up taking some circuitous routes, but we always had kind people help us with directions.”
Traveling with his family gave Fetzer the opportunity to step back and figure out his path forward. When the family returned to Boston, Fetzer assumed the position of president and CEO of Cerulean Pharma Inc. (since acquired by Daré Bioscience Inc.), a nanotechnology-based therapeutics company. At the same time, to make a broader impact, Fetzer joined and continues to serve on boards – two public boards, one private board, an advisory board and his own company’s board.
“In a way, it’s an extension of working for a consulting company,” says Fetzer, noting that he sees his role as offering advice. “It keeps me sharp and hopefully helps the company.”
It certainly did for Auxilium Pharmaceuticals Inc., whose board of directors Fetzer served on for nearly 10 years. During that time, Auxilium’s Xiaflex got unanimous FDA approval in the treatment of Dupuytren’s contracture, a debilitating disease affecting mostly men of Scandinavian descent that causes them to accumulate collagen, eventually deforming their fingers and other parts of the body.
“This was truly a breakthrough,” explains Fetzer.
“The disease had never, ever been treatable before. People could have surgery, but the collagen nodules would return. Xiaflex is injected into the nodule, which then dissolves
the nodule and hand movement returns to normal.”
Even though he’d successfully brought to market two pharmaceutical products that help with human conditions, Fetzer still wanted to do more for future generations.
In 2014, when the opportunity came to make a difference in the world of biofuels, Fetzer made the leap and moved his family to southern California. It turns out that tweaking the genome of algae has biological parallels to producing breakthrough drugs.
“I took the position with SGI because of the prospect of really making a big contribution to the planet’s health,” he says.
With the progress Fetzer and the SGI team have made, the odds are strong that he’ll succeed – and that the world will have a renewable, scalable, low-carbon biofuel in the near future, pushing the needle forward on clean energy.
When that happens, Fetzer will then set his sights on other ways to improve the planet – one gene at a time.