Interview. Quinton Zondervan, biotech entrepreneur, environmentalist, writer
Quinton Zondervan, the Cambridge-based biotech entrepreneur, environmentalist and playwright sat down with me recently to answer this simple question: How does a 41-year-old father of two with a masters degree from MIT do it all -- start a company to invent new drugs to combat infectious diseases; save the world from our looming environmental crisis; and adapt a Shakespeare play to the issues and concerns of our 21st century? Here is what he told me, about himself, about this question and about his summer plans:
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I was born in the Netherlands. My family was from Suriname in South America, and they moved back when I was 2 years old. So I grew up in Suriname in the tropics and that’s where a lot of my environmental sense was actually born. I really lived in the environment more than I do here. I came to the United States when I was 15 and went to high school here, went to college here in Florida and then I moved to Massachusetts to go to MIT and settled down here. I got married, and I'm raising kids and started my own company. I'm an entrepreneur. That's where I am now.
What did you study as an undergraduate?
Undergraduate was at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. I studied computer science and mathematics there, and then computer science at MIT for a masters.
What is your day job?
Currently I run a biotech company. We are working on cloning human antibodies against infectious disease targets and using the antibodies as medicine but in a new way. All the antibody drugs that exist today are single antibodies -- one antibody per disease, but for infectious diseases that doesn't work because the disease is too complicated to attack it with a single antibody clone. So what you really need is a diverse set of antibodies which is more how our own immune system responds to an infection. What we're trying to do is to harness that innate response but we pick the best of the best antibodies from different people and combine them together into a super drug that is more powerful than any individual's immune response could be and is resistant to the bacteria's own evolution so if you attack it with one antibody it can evolve around it, but if you have a diverse set of antibodies that is challenging the bacteria in so many ways, it can't easily evolve around it.
Tell me about the history of the company?
As an undergraduate, I met this fellow student who happened to be Dutch and who happened to have an interest in chess which is how we met and he and I became fast friends. He was studying biochemistry and I was in computer science so we had very different academic interests, but I've always had a broad interest in science in general. He and I kept in touch and we've been friends all our lives since then. About six years ago, he had been working at another company where he had been exploring some of these ideas and that didn't really work out for him so he contacted me and said he still had all these ideas but he couldn't really deploy them at his current company and I was transitioning out of having a steady job in software and really looking for starting my own company and so I said "Let's get together and do this". So it was his idea and my entrepreneurial spirit and that's how we got together and started the company.
Where did you start the company?
It was in Cambridge. He was living in Denmark at the time, so he moved back to Cambridge and we started the company in Cambridge.
Tell us about the early formation stage of the company, where did the money come from, and how did you choose where to locate?
Starting a company is all about money, especially in a capital-intensive industry like ours where we don't expect to actually make a profit until 10 years down the road.In our particular case, for various reasons, most people said, "No, I'm not really interested in this." I happened to have a friend who got very rich in the Dot Com era. He was very early at Google and he also started his own company that he sold to Yahoo so he was able to step up and fund the company. So he funded us a little bit at the beginning, like $250,000, which gave us enough time to do full-time fundraising. We weren't able to raise money elsewhere, so we went back to him and said "either you fund it or we can't do it" so at that point he gave us $2 million and that was enough to get the company off the ground to rent a laboratory, start hiring some scientists and really start doing the work. In terms of fundraising, we've raised $25 million so far, which in terms of spending takes us out to the end of next year.
Have you told us the name of the company yet?
Excelimmune.In terms of location, we rented our lab space in West Cambridge. Both co-founders were living in Cambridge, so we wanted to build it close to home, but it turned out not to be the ideal location for us. One of the [reasons] was cost, not just absolute cost, but the quality of the space for the amount of rent that you pay. It is just more expensive in Cambridge to get high quality laboratory and office space compared to 128. So that was one consideration and the other one was that although we live in Cambridge, most of the people we end up hiring don't and so for them it is actually more convenient for them to be out there. And we anticipated growth, and so as you need more space, it becomes an even bigger problem because the expense goes up, so for all those reasons it just made more sense to move out once we had started the company. After 2 years we moved out.
Ok, on environmental issues -- what do you think is at stake?
In terms of what's at stake, it's everything. That was clear to me at a very young age.In terms of my activism, that began in college. The same friend who I co-founded this company with, he was a biochemist. He explained to me the greenhouse effect when I was a freshman in college and I began to become aware of climate change -- we still called it global warming then -- and what it meant to our future. And of course we were young idealists at the time and so we thought, we'll figure this out. Our great leaders will solve the problem. We still looked around and said what can we do right here, right now on our college campus. We realized that we don't have a recycling program. And the irony is that the recycling depot for the city is actually on the campus. So he and I started a recycling program for the college campus. It was literally my dad's truck and a bunch of students, and we would drive around and pick up the recyclable materials from the bins we distributed. That gave me practice at setting up from scratch these kind of programs, and before I graduated I handed that off to the college administration and that got me started on advocacy. I understood how to do it myself, recruit other people, grow it and then the next step is, make it part of the daily operational infrastructure so that it continues on after I leave.
Where did environmental issues fit in your life between your undergraduate days and today?
In many ways, because of the way I grew up and where I grew up, a lot of environmental practices were part of my life not because I was green when I was 10, but just because that's how we lived. I would bike to school, we would grow vegetables in the backyard. We didn't really think about it. It was just that's how you had to live.I would ride my bike to MIT when I was studying there, we used public transportation, we tried not to be wasteful because growing up it's not like you have so much food that you just waste it. So in that sense I kept my eco-sense alive. But it was MIT, so it was pretty intense, so there was not a lot of spare time to do other things but I just kept it alive in that way. And then after I got married, I bought a small condo in Boston and we moved there. The first thing I do when I move somewhere, I ask "Ok what's the recycling program? We don't have one. Well that's not acceptable." So the obvious step was to institute one and I did, it's still operational today. And that reinvigorated my activism.
What do you think are the most important issues in the environment?
We have come to this realization, it is really a part of how we live. We've made all these choices, fifty years ago and one hundred years ago that it turns out are not sustainable. We can't just keep doing it that way, and so the challenge is how to undo that. We don't want to give up progress. We don't want to give up the conveniences and the benefits of a technologically advanced civilization, but we have to figure out how to integrate sustainable practices with that technological advancement and that's very very challenging. It's not just a matter of telling people you need to be more efficient, you need to recycle more. It's really about changing the fundamental infrastructure of how our whole society operates and that's a huge challenge.
How has it been to take your private sector experience into the non-profit world as the head of Green Cambridge?
In some ways it's more challenging, and in other ways its not.In a corporate environment, if you're in charge, it's much easier to direct people and manage them. You say, "You do this and you do that" and if people don't cooperate, you fire them and you hire other people who do the job. When you're dealing with a volunteer organization, you really have to work in a much more cooperative manner and you really have to figure out what you want to accomplish and what does everyone else want to accomplish, and where's the overlap, where do things line up, so you can energize people and say "hey let's get together and get this program off the ground."
How do you deal with the time-sensitive nature of environmental issues?
In some ways, yes we need to do everything right now, but we're also adults and we know we just can't. So you have to choose. That's a challenge but it's also an opportunity because if you care then there are so many things that need to be done that there has to be something that you really want to do. The challenge is to make those matches and really be able to inspire people so that they are working on some aspect of the problem that they really care about and they are going to be really successful working on that. Where you're going to run into trouble if you force someone to work on something they are not that passionate about because this is their free time at the end of the day, so if they're not into it, they're not going to do it. So you really have to figure out how you inspire them and how do you line up their interest with what needs to be done so that you get maximum progress.
What are your thoughts about government? Where does government fit into this picture?
That is a very challenging and contentious issue. It's changing over time.I see government primarily with regard to this issue and really any innovative issue as a catalyst. The government can really accelerate and enable certain transformations because they have control over regulations and resources that can block or enable progress in particular directions. A lot of time what can happen is the government can say "If we change the law this way, or we make the new law this way, now it enables a lot people to go and do stuff." Like Solarize Mass, a perfect example -- by lining up the incentives the right way, tons of people are installing solar PV. That’s an opportunity for the government to make the right adjustments and let the people do the work. There's another aspect where the government is providing certain services and that's an opportunity within providing those services to educate people and to install better practices that are more sustainable and more energy efficient.
What is the right scale to think about environmental issues? The individual, the group, the city, the state?
All of the above. It depends on where's your influence. What we've found over the last 20 to 30 years is that unfortunately it's at the national and international level its just not getting done, so we have to do what we can on the local and state level, but we also have to keep pushing our national and international leaders to get it done. They're not getting it done but whatever we do locally helps because every pound of carbon we don't put up there is less climate change that we have to deal with in the future. As much as we would love a global comprehensive solution, and as much as we need that, until it happens we have to do everything we can at the local level.
I want to switch to your budding newest profession; I understand you have written some thing? You may be a playwright.
I wouldn't put it in the past tense yet. It's still very much a work in progress.It comes out of my own ongoing journey and exploration. I was trained and studied as an engineer and one of the skills that I wasn't able to develop as well during that time was communication and interacting with people and what I've found in my work both professionally and volunteer, that's so hugely important. You have to know your facts, but you also have to know how to inspire and motivate people and one of the ways you can do that is through writing. From a very young age I've been a writer and even published some stories when I was 8 years old in my town newspaper, but I never professionally developed that. One of the things that I realized about a year ago is that one of the reasons that we may be failing to reach a lot of people is that we're not properly dramatizing this issue. Fiction and stories are really the key way that humans communicate with one another when it comes to the big picture -- the myths and the stories that really drive our lives. Part of my frustration in communicating about this issue is reaching people and I thought maybe I have to fictionalize it a little bit and use the dramatic component to help engage people who are not as motivated by the technical aspects of it or the political aspects of it but who might get hooked by the dramatic aspects of it.
What's it like being Shakespeare?
It's never easy especially when you're juggling 50 million other things but it starts with inspiration and then perspiration. I had the thought first of all I should start from the best so I started from Shakespeare and started adapting the basic story of Romeo and Juliet and recasting it in a modern version which is more about the politics and the eco-disaster that we're living through.
What insights have you gotten from doing that?
The challenge for me in fiction is always in character development and the drama. I tend to focus on the technical aspects. One of the things that's been very helpful to me is to talk with people especially people like yourself who can read some early drafts and give me feedback and say "This looks like it's working, maybe work on that a little bit". It's also very inspiring. I have no trouble inspiring myself to get started on these projects, but sustaining it and finishing it is really really tough. Having people who are encouraging you and giving you constructive feedback is huge because it creates almost like a demand, like a customer is waiting for you to deliver this thing and so that forces you to pay attention to it. It is definitely challenging and exciting at the same time. I love writing and it's a great outlet for me as well as I take in all this information and all these issues and it's a great way to let some of it go in a useful way.
Who are some other authors that you enjoy?
I mostly actually prefer science fiction, so I've been reading a lot of science fiction over my life and the current authors that I really enjoy are Neal Stephenson and Vernor Vinge and of course the classics, Isaac Asimov, etc. I read very broadly and anything that strikes me as interesting.
Where do writing, and science and the environment and running a company fit into the right-brain left-brain dichotomy?
I think these are useful metaphors and I use them myself to think about thinking, but at the same time we're always, if we're mentally healthy, we're one integrated personality. So it's important to use and nurture and apply all aspects of yourself to whatever you're doing. So when you're working in a company professionally there's an emotional aspect that's a very important part of that. You have to be passionate about what you're doing, you have to relate to the people you're working with, and there's all of that. I find that one of the ways to maintain all of the aspects of your persona is to work on all of them, to read and study intellectual things and to also participate in the arts. I study a lot of music. I take music lessons. I read a lot of fiction. I write fiction. These are all ways to engage that part of your brain that otherwise would languish, and you may need it down the road when you're facing a particular problem or you're trying to work on a particular issue you really need all of those aspects of yourself to be able to solve the problem. That means that you have to maintain it. It's like conditioning if you're an athlete, you have to keep training, you can't just let it go.
Do you have any interesting plans for the summer?
We are actually traveling back to Suriname in a few days for two weeks, and then we're travelling to Denmark and the Netherlands later in the summer, so looking forward to that and reconnecting with that part of my roots and then we try to enjoy the summer in Cambridge as much as we can -- go to the beach, be outdoors, enjoy my garden.
What are your kids’ favorite activities in Cambridge during the summer?
Their favorite camp is Outback in Harvard Square, which means they get to run around all day and be outside. Human beings are meant to enjoy the natural environment so we try to be outdoors as much as we can.