8,000 miles to a dream career

Naren Narendranath brings an international perspective to the POET team

Naren Narendranath is 8,000 miles – and a cultural world away – from his native India.

But that hasn’t kept Narendranath from thriving in his seven years as POET’s Fermentation Research Director. In fact, his background gives Narendranath the kind of big picture worldview that his coworkers point to when they talk about his considerable contributions to the POET team.

“Naren is a key contributor in so many different projects,” says Steve Lewis, the Chief Science Officer at POET. “He’s a very sound scientific thinker, and he also brings a different perspective with his international experience.”

Lewis points to Narendranath’s specific and tangible contributions – the numerous patent applications, his impressive list of technical publications, his work on thermal rate technologies and the fermentation side of POET’s biomass project.

But, Lewis says, it’s the intangibles that make Narendranath such a valuable member of the POET team.

“Naren has a strong academic background, and I’d been following his work for years before we finally got a chance to hire him at POET,” Lewis says. “He’s a fantastic microbiologist. But it’s more than that. Naren is curious, he’s driven, he’s willing to question all of his own beliefs and assumptions. He’s not just a great scientist. He’s also a great guy.”

{Vital} Let’s start from the beginning. Where are you from originally?

Naren: I was born in Chennai, India, and grew up there.

Tell me about your parents.

Naren: My mom was a biochemist. She worked in a hospital. My dad was an electronics and telecommunications engineer, and wanted me to be an engineer.

Did you want to be an engineer?

Naren: No, but my parents always pushed us toward science. As a youngster I wanted to be a medical doctor, but it just didn’t work out … I got admitted into dental school but realized I didn’t want to be a dentist. My next choice was agriculture. In India, agriculture is the major backbone for the country. During my undergrad, I had a couple of courses in industrial microbiology, and realized that’s what I wanted to do.

In 1995, you went to the University of Saskatchewan for your Ph.D.

Naren: I wanted to stay in industrial microbiology and I was looking around for where people were working. I wanted to go to either Canada or Australia. The University of Saskatchewan had a professor, Mike Ingledew, who is very well known in applied microbiology. So I decided I wanted to go there. He became my mentor and advisor.

How was the culture shock?

Naren: At that time, in 1995, the Internet in India was not like it is today, so I didn’t know as much about Canada as I thought I did. I didn’t know it was really going to be that cold when I got there. I came in fall, so it wasn’t that bad, but then it was one of the worst winters ever. In India, I grew up in one of the biggest metro cities in the country, called Chennai – in 1995 it was probably 12 million people. When I got to Canada hardly anybody was on the roads. I kept saying ‘Where is everybody?’

Do you have any family here?

Naren: My wife, Sri, and I have a son. Sri – her real name Srividya – used to work at POET. She has her master’s degree in computer science. She got a job at POET working with a computer database system for a few years and then found something that is more in programming, which she is more interested in.

Tell me about your son.

Naren: His name is Vishnu, and he is six. He loves to run, and I am not a runner. He wants to go fishing, and he’s starting to ask me to take him fishing, but I don’t know anything about fishing. I guess I’ll have to learn. That’s one of the things I like about this culture – you don’t try to force the kids into things they don’t want to do.

How did you and Sri meet?

Naren: Oh, people always think this story is interesting. Technically, we met a day before our wedding.

What? Was it an arranged marriage? What did she think of that?

Naren [laughing]: Everyone always asks what she thinks of it. No one ever asks what I thought. I was nervous, too. Yes, it was a typical arranged marriage. My parents met with Sri’s parents – she’s from a town near where I grew up – and decided it would be a good match. Many people here think it’s unusual, but it’s part of our culture.

How long have you been married?

Naren: Our ten year anniversary is coming up. I don’t have any complaints, and I hope my wife doesn’t, either.

How did you end up at POET?

Naren: I saw [POET Chief Science Officer] Steve Lewis at a conference in 2005, and we knew each other a little bit and he had read some of my publications, so we were familiar with each other. I was working at Alltech, in Kentucky, as coordinator for alcohol research, which was my first real job out of college. Steve said ‘Would you be interested in Broin Industries if we had an opening?’ So I came in for an interview.

How was the interview?

Naren: When I came for the interview, POET was smaller at that time – the building was smaller and there were fewer people. Then they told me the owner of the company wanted to meet me. I was a little nervous. When I met Jeff Broin he said ‘There are three things I want to tell you about working here. You need to park your ego at the door. You need the right attitude. And you need to communicate well.’ I left thinking, ‘Does that mean I’m hired?’ Two or three weeks later they offered me the job.

What types of projects do you focus on?

Naren: We’re trying to find ways to make the fermentation process more economical. We want to make things cheaper and more profitable.

What’s an aspect of your job that still gets you excited?

Naren: What’s so exciting about POET is that the things we work on in the lab we also get to see on the industrial scale. That’s amazing.

I know you’ve been instrumental with a lot of the new processes and patents …

Naren: Oh, it’s such a great team here. Everyone is so focused. Our owner is so committed. That’s another fortunate thing about working here, is that we have an owner, Jeff Broin, who is sharp and committed. If we need something, we’re not waiting.

But what about you? POET hires good people for a reason. So what do you bring to the team?

Naren: Oh, I don’t know about that. You’d have to ask Steve Lewis or someone else about that.

But if you had to tell me the positives you bring to POET, what would they be?

Naren: Oh, I couldn’t tell you that.

OK. What would you hope others would say are your three strengths?

Naren: OK. My attitude, for one. Maybe the way I deal with things. Two, the way I present the results from research. Three, my expertise in the area, probably.

Do you always talk so much about yourself?

Naren [laughing]: It really is that I’m just one small part of one large team.

So, you’re 8,000 miles from home, having moved from one of the largest cities in the world’s second most populous country, to South Dakota. How do you like it?

Naren: I love it. The team at POET is great, and everyone in my neighborhood is so friendly. I love the people here. I didn’t expect that. Everyone waves and says ‘Hi.’

And the job itself?

Naren: It was my dream to work in cellulosic ethanol (since my grad school days), especially at a place like POET. I tell people, ‘Look what we’re doing here.’ We’re planning to make cellulosic ethanol on a commercial scale by 2013, and we will be the first in the world to do that. We could change the world. I’m so proud to be part of that history.



Vital is a news & media resource published by POET, presenting a variety of stories with the thought leadership one expects from the largest, most forward-thinking ethanol producer.