At Green.org, we are always excited to meet entrepreneurs who were able to build, scale, and sell their companies, particularly when they work in tech or sustainability. Today, Green.org sat down with Erum Azeez Khan, partner at Messaginglab, to learn about the cross section between biotech and sustainability, and how she has pursued a successful career starting and working in a variety of different organizations in biotech.
Erum, thank you for being here! Tell us a little bit about you and your background:
I am a partner at the biotech strategy firm, Messaginglab, and co-host of Grow Everything, a podcast that invites industry leaders to discuss how biotechnology can solve some of the biggest challenges including addressing the climate crisis. When people think of biotech, they often think of pharma as it has an outsized impact on human health, but agriculture, personal care, and materials are gaining traction when it comes to making products sustainable and biodegradable through genetic engineering and bioprocessing. I have 15 years of experience in healthcare, life sciences, technology, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
Prior to Messaginglab, I co-founded a digital health tech company called Soundmind, where I led fundraising, growth and exit as CEO.
How did I get there? I have been a super curious person ever since I was a little girl. I consumed every science book, show, and class throughout my formative years. I studied Forensic Chemistry at West Chester University of Pennsylvania for three reasons 1. It was a culmination of many scientific fields – biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, psychology and criminal justice (of course). 2. I was a huge fan of the X Files and wanted to be Scully, so when I had to pick a major at 17 years old, that was it! 3. No other universities really had a forensics program and WCUPA offered me a full scholarship, so sign me up! After I graduated, I ended up working as an analytical chemist at GSK then J&J developing therapeutics. I learned a lot and it was fun…for 5 years, but then I left the lab to do something with people rather than pipettes. I received a position at the University of Pennsylvania to work with the Dean of Sociology on special projects around history and race which was completely eye-opening.
At the same time, I met my husband, we got married and lived internationally. I worked with very cool companies and found my calling developing tech startups and ecosystems working alongside TED, Singularity University, Google, and the UN. One specific startup I worked with in 2012 was Carbon Continuum and we were on a mission to build a reactor to convert carbon emissions from factories into carbon nanotubes. We were VERY early and now there are a few companies repurposing carbon emissions into useful products. During this time, I was invited to join the Atlantic Council’s Emerging Leaders in Energy and Environmental Policy. It was a think tank where we traveled on study tours to investigate different issues while meeting with industry, communities, startups, and more and churned out reports for policy leaders.
What is a fun fact about you?
I love new wave, synthwave, and ethereal music i.e. Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Radiohead
Why do you think biotech and sustainability is such an important topic today?
We are living through the climate crisis or as I say, climate destabilization. The word “change” in climate “change” does not signal urgency. But even though there are many challenges, there are many opportunities. Our society is organized around building businesses and organizations that solve problems. Unfortunately, many businesses embraced industrial processes and scaled up operations that created problems from agriculture to plastic waste. However, that can be changed by leaders and consumers making decisions with sustainability as a core principle. When more people see and use solar power, recycled materials, and embrace the sustainable use of spaces, combating climate change seems feasible. We are at a critical juncture and if there is any chance of climate change being a historical event, then we need companies to rethink their products and processes. We as consumers have a responsibility to use our money to influence companies and markets to move to sustainable practices.
What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?
Biotechnology will become more pervasive as a way to manufacture goods. For example, packaging, clothing, and other products will be made from biomaterials that can easily degrade without harming the environment. Plants can be engineered even further to survive extreme climates or even become luminescent to provide lighting in the evenings. And of course, medications and treatments, everything from mRNA guided personalized medicine to lab grown organs for transplants. It’s like William Gibson said, “the future is already here–-It’s just not very evenly distributed”, but I would rephrase that for the bioeconomy as “It’s just not very scaled”. We have a handle on distribution systems, but we need more biomanufacturing investment to distribute and scale production. I am looking forward to seeing how the US Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology will aid in growing the bioeconomy in a smart and sustainable way.
What can the average person do to make a difference?
Cultivate a sustainability mindset. Read more on the topic from leading thinkers and that will help strengthen your decision making. One book recommendation is Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. To get an overview of biotechnology and what is possible, I recommend reading the Genesis Machine by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel or listen to the Grow Everything podcast. Change can be hard, but it can be empowering too. It is hard to make a decision to pay more for something that has a cheaper alternative, especially for those of us who came from lower-income households.
It is hard to compost food scraps when you live in a bustling metropolis that does not provide composting services. But start by making one change, whether it’s eating less meat (Vegan Thursdays!) or switching to a hybrid or electric car. I admit that I do not compost at the moment, but I also do not own a car (the challenges and benefits of living and working in Brooklyn, NY). If you are a business leader reading this, think about the full cycle of your product development and its end of life. Make sure you and your company clean up after yourselves!
Erum, thank you for sharing your experience building successful businesses in biotech and sustainability.
Dylan Welch is the CEO and Host of Going Green, a podcast, website, and social media brand that highlights renewable energy, cleantech, and sustainable news.