Steve Lewis, POET’s Chief Science Officer, loves a good mystery. And every day, this microbiology visionary unlocks more clues to helping POET produce ethanol in the most efficient, most effective way.
During his 28-year career in industrial biotechnology, Steve Lewis – like many successful scientists – has listened to his share of naysayers claiming that his experiments wouldn’t work or that his ideas weren’t commercially viable.
Lewis, POET’s Chief Science Officer, ignores the negativity – and often proceeds to prove his skeptics wrong.
“As a scientist, I never want to say, ‘oh, that’s not possible,’” Lewis says. “It gives me a rush discovering things that everybody else says won’t work.”
But bucking conventional wisdom is only part of the fun of Lewis’s job. The bigger reward comes, he says, from seeing his discoveries – like new enzymes, improved yeast strains, and more efficient production processes – used to strengthen POET’s vision for the future of ethanol production: maximizing the value of what can be created from a kernel of corn, and minimizing the waste.
“Mother Nature has evolved the means for converting starches and sugar to ethanol over the millennia, and it is our job to unlock her secrets so we can make the process more efficient,” he says. “Mother Nature is the original genetic engineer.”
Lewis’s relentless inquisitiveness, combined with his “never say never” attitude, have been a boon for POET since he joined the company in 1998.
“To be successful in Steve’s role, you need to live on the edge and try things that others may see as unworkable,” says POET CEO Jeff Broin. “Steve has an innate ability to look in directions that are outside the box, but that are attainable with further research. He continually questions everything we believe to be true. It’s amazing how often he has been able to improve processes and procedures that we believed were already optimized.”
Lewis, the proud father of 18-year-old triplets, is known industry-wide for his passion, friendliness, and commitment. He’s not only respected for his outstanding technological achievements, but also because he’s a down-to-earth, pleasant guy who can talk as easily with businesspeople as with scientists, according to longtime industry colleague Rod Bothast, PhD, who worked as a research scientist in fermentation technology for the U.S.D.A. and was a founding director of the National Corn to Ethanol Research Center in Edwardsville, Ill.
“He’s a well-rounded person as well as a respected scientist,” Bothast says.
Mike Ingledew, PhD, a retired professor of industrial microbiology at the University of Saskatchewan who has known Lewis since the early ‘90s, concurs. Ingledew has always admired Lewis for his desire to innovate as well as for his “superb” work ethic, his unwavering dedication to both his science and his family, and his broad intellect.
“Steve has this voracious appetite for reading both scientific and classical literature, and a wonderful ability to retain information. He has the ability to be extremely probing, and whenever we talked about science we had great discussions,” Ingledew says.
Lewis has always bucked the stereotype of the shy, singularly-focused scientist who is most comfortable in a lab. While growing up on a farm in Grove City, Ohio (near Columbus), he had a wide range of interests, from sports to agriculture to science to business.
Watching his father work long, hard hours on the farm, however, Lewis knew from a young age that if he chose a career related to agriculture, he wanted to work on the science side rather than the production side.
“I knew I wanted to get a college education,” he says. “I really loved science, but I also liked business. I wanted to work in an area where I could merge the two,” Lewis says.
After graduating with a B.S. in Microbiology from Ohio State University, Lewis recognized the mammoth potential of the emerging field of industrial biotechnology. He started his career in the early ‘80s with a small enzyme-technology company – while also earning an M.B.A. from Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. Eventually, the company was acquired by global biotech giant Genencor moving Lewis and his wife to Chicago.
Three years later, on the same day Lewis and his wife received the news they were expecting triplets, Genencor announced they were closing the Chicago office and were transferring Lewis to Cedar Rapids, Iowa – the headquarters for their starch processing (ethanol and corn sweeteners) based industry. Here, he worked on developing new starch processing enzymes for both the ethanol and corn processing industries. Once developed, Lewis stayed involved in the business development side to bring the enzyme application to market. Lewis shows a great appreciation for the knowledgeable colleagues he was able to collaborate with at Genencor. Time spent with the company afforded him the opportunity to study Food Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois. He credits his multidisciplinary background for allowing him to make otherwise unforeseen connections spanning different fields of inquiry.
When Genencor started to emphasize in markets other than starch ethanol, Lewis took the leap to POET, which “gave him the platform to move his vision and ideas forward,” POET CEO Broin says.
Lewis’s biggest discovery at POET has been the patent-pending, cutting-edge BPX production process. BPX – a technology now used in 24 of 27 POET plants – eliminates the cooking process. This technology reduces energy costs and plant emissions, and has made a tremendously positive impact on the plants’ bottom lines.
“It wasn’t easy, but Steve’s perseverance allowed this technology to develop,” says Mark Stowers, Senior Vice President of Science and Technology at POET.
Lewis modestly refers to the discovery of BPX as “serendipitous,” and he credits a whole team of POET colleagues for their contributions in developing and refining the new technology. But Lewis does admit that heading up the discovery of a game-changing technology was “humbling and exciting. It’s a lot of fun to see something new that no one else in the world has seen.”
Lewis’s enthusiasm and incredible thirst for knowledge make him an inspiring and likable scientific leader, says Chad Poppe, Technical Services Manager for POET. Poppe also appreciates Lewis’s openness and willingness to test new ideas, even those he doesn’t necessarily endorse.
“If an idea goes against what he thinks, that’s fine. He always just wants to get things done, get them tested, tried, and proven true or false,” Poppe says. “He’s got the attitude that ‘it’s okay to be wrong, because being wrong is what makes research tick.’”
Lewis lives that notion every day, and finds as much joy in creating new questions as in answering existing ones. “For every answer you create through scientific research, you generate two more questions. And in questions, there is opportunity,” Lewis says.