Dundalk doctor has a flair for distilling good business ideas

 

An entrepreneur from an early age, thanks to the cross-Border butter market, the Alltech president has moved on to greater things, writes Donal Nugent.

You know you are on US time when your interviewee suggests meeting at 7 a.m. and you agree.

The hotel lobby in Phoenix, Arizona, is buzzing as if it was noon and my interviewee is fitting me in between a visit to the gym and a business trip on his private jet.

Not that Pearse Lyons has a rushed air about him. An Irish man who has built a $200 million (€173.8 million) biotechnology company from scratch in just over two decades, our conversation is as affable as if we were chatting over an afternoon pint in his native Dundalk, Co Louth.

"The town", in fact, figures prominently in Dr Lyons's assessment of himself. There was, at home, a mother who brooked no opposition to her children's advancement.

And there was, from the town's location, insight into the wider world. Sent across the Border to buy butter in the North, the young Pearse quickly saw the opportunity to make pocket money by supplying the neighbours.

"That sort of entrepreneurial spirit was engendered in people in Dundalk," he says.

With a family history in coopering, and the Harp brewery nearby, brewing seemed a good choice of career.

After graduating from UCD in 1967, he did something no one in Irish brewing had done before - he took it seriously, pursuing a master's in the School of Brewing in Birmingham and following it with a PhD.

"Nobody, believe it or not, had ever done a degree in brewing in Ireland before, Guinness included. It was unheard of," he recalls.

The new doctor quickly found a job in a gleaming facility, the Irish Distillers plant just opened in Midleton, Co Cork.

Four years later, he got his first taste of American business when he was headhunted by an ingredients supplier.

He found he had a talent for solving technical problems and turning those solutions into profitable new products.

By 1980, he was out on his own. Alltech, of which he is now president, was set up with the modest seed capital of his $10,000 in savings, and the oil crisis had created unexpected and fertile opportunities for a distilling expert.

"Gas prices were high and everyone wanted to convert corn into ethanol. Distillers were being planned across the country but there was no expertise around. I was able to fill that void," he remembers.

To this day, Alltech remains the source of the standard textbooks on fuel alcohol. So when, I ask him, will gasohol move beyond being "the next big thing"?

"Gasohol is not emerging; it's already here. It's huge," he says.

American cars are already guzzling five billion gallons of it a year, primarily added to regular petrol to increase oxygen emissions.

He believes a full-scale biofuel revolution is possible in 10-15 years through processing cellulose, that is grass and wood, the most abundant source of energy on the planet.

So could Irish farmers be matching Southfork-style dwellings with a Ewing-type industry?

"I wouldn't hold my breath, but the possibility is there," he says.

What Dr Lyons has no doubts about is the impact of biotechnology. "The reality is that the public perception of GMOs in Ireland is bad but it's a minuscule part of the whole promise of biotechnology," he says.

He talks about a company in California that has already recorded the genome sequences of three million micro-organisms. "They have robots doing it. It's the kind of technology that Ireland should be investing in."

The core ingredient to make this happen is already in place, he says.

"The education system we have in Ireland isn't the most rounded but it does produce very smart people. We have to use that to our advantage.

"We can't build cars, we don't have a huge supply of cheap labour, so we have to use our smarts. Biotechnology with a purpose is one way of doing that."

With its headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, Alltech now has 1,300 "incredibly motivated" staff in 44 countries, including some 55 in its European Biosciences and Marketing Centre in Dunboyne, Co Meath.

At the core of its success was the move towards the lucrative area of yeast-based animal feed products in the mid-1980s, an area where the company has now positioned itself as a world leader.

There was no one big idea, Dr Lyons says, but lots of smaller ones following on from each other. Alltech's Lexington Brewing Company supplies Kentucky Ale across the state.

Encouraging good ideas and entrepreneurship among his staff is important to Dr Lyons. One of the most successful spin-off businesses to date has been Dipping Dots, flash frozen ice-cream developed by former Alltech employee Curt Jones in the late 1980s. It now has 90 per cent name recognition among US college students and it is only a matter of time before that feat is repeated here.

With the next generation of Lyons now in the business, Dr Lyons is adamant that the one certainty of the business is that it is not for sale. This is not a gently ticking over family enterprise.

"We did $100 million sales in 2000. We'll do $200 million this year," he says.

"We had a target of $500 million, but our target is not really $500 million, it's $2 billion, $3 billion. But it's a target that we can meet at our pace, fast or slow. We don't have to worry about the next quarter."

As we part company, Dr Lyons opens his notebook on a heavily edited page, some lines circled, others crossed out. These are projects he has been considering this month.

"There is never any shortage of ideas," he says. "If I have one fault with people it's a lack of curiosity."

Donal Nugent is science journalism fellow with the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.