Mark Stowers directs POET’s passionate team of innovators.
Like a conductor in an orchestra, Mark Stowers leads a group with confidence in the work he does every day at POET as Vice President for Research and Development. For Stowers, the orchestra’s players aren’t musicians, but rather scientists, investors, collaborators, government officials and more. His job is to oversee the strategy and actions of POET’s research, ensuring that the organization is heading in the right direction, and that all these different players are working together.
Being pegged as a conductor is no exaggeration; Stowers estimates that he collaborates with more than 60 different POET team members in an average week. When he’s done working internally, there are always external collaborators who demand time and attention from the head of POET’s research department.
For Stowers, however, working with such a wide-ranging and varied group of people is the best part of his job. “The people [of POET] are very friendly, engaging and sharp,” he explains. “I think that our company values make the people-topeople interactions work. We always over-communicate, we check our egos at the door and we are all on the same team.”
Though Stowers started out as a research scientist—he has a Ph.D. in microbiology from North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C.—a typical day at POET is more about leading a team than about spending time in a lab. His leadership responsibilities range from discussing detailed programs POET is working on, to talking about the progress of a laboratory renovation, to meeting with collaborating organizations. “I’m a trained scientist,” he says, “but a large part of my career has been on the leadership side.”
Stowers’ colleagues recognize the importance of his experience both as a scientist and as a leader. “Mark has the ability to see the big picture and think strategically, as well as manage project details with the scientists and engineers,” says Sharon Chontos, POET’s Director of Research Operations. “He can manage at all levels.”
Stowers and his team are particularly passionate when it comes to Project LIBERTY and researching cellulosic energy. “If we are successful, by 2022, all of the Middle Eastern oil we buy can be offset [by ethanol and biofuels],” he says. “People get up in the morning to think about that [at POET]. That’s why we come to work.”
Despite the team’s enthusiasm for the cellulosic energy initiatives at POET, Stowers says he wouldn’t consider himself an environmentalist —in the classical sense at least. “In the past, the term ‘environmentalist’ had a connotation of a somewhat irrational, non-business focused activist. In that sense, I am not an environmentalist, but rather a common-sense businessman with an understanding of science,” he explains. “I look at reducing our oil consumption as pragmatic.”
Responsible outlook The work Stowers and his team do exemplifies a certain type of 21st century environmentalist outlook. “We here at POET are charged with the responsibility of doing a major part in reducing our nations’ dependence on oil,” he says. One of his regular obligations is a town hall meeting with POET’s researchers. He uses this time to hear what’s happening on the R&D side of things, while also filling them in on developments in other departments of the company. Naren Narendranath, Fermentation Research Director for POET, says Stowers’ concern for the needs of R&D team members is readily apparent and that the department appreciates his organizational work.
With so many balls to juggle, it’s not surprising that down time is at a premium. Chontos says that ability to manage multiple projects at once is one of his strengths. Stowers laughs when asked if he has time for hobbies, but admits that he squeezes in a round of golf or a fly fishing expedition when he has the time.
“You can’t be listening if you are talking, and you can’t be thinking if you are always listening. So you need to balance that out,” he reflects. “The most challenging part of my job is given all the stuff I have to do, I still need to find time to think and come up with new ideas.”