FEATURES • Winter 2001

Drawing on many years' experience in biotechnology, engineering, and entrepreneurship, Robert J. Calcaterra is leading the Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise—a St. Louis business incubator created to develop successful start-ups and companies in the life sciences.

By Janni Simner

If not for a dedicated physics teacher, Robert J. Calcaterra might never have gotten beyond his Lincoln, Nebraska, hometown. The once-mediocre high school student recalls his teacher's advice: "You're a much better student than that. Quit messing around and get your act together." Calcaterra took the words to heart, and soon he was taking advanced math and science courses as a result of that teacher's recommendations.

In the years that followed, he proved just how much better he was, first as an engineer for Monsanto, Coors, and Amoco, then as a renowned expert on technology incubators, which are committed to creating thriving businesses from promising ideas. Calcaterra recently took over as president and CEO of St. Louis' new Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, where he's helping transform St. Louis into the nation's "biobelt."

After graduating from high school, Calcaterra earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Nebraska, becoming the first in his family to obtain an advanced degree. "Engineering was exciting to me," he says of his career choice. "I was very interested in building things and creating things."

After college he moved to St. Louis to accept a position at Monsanto. At first he was a group leader in the design of fiber manufacturing plants (such as nylon), but his commitment to building and creating soon led him to research and development. "The exciting thing [about R&D] is that you start with a sheet of blank paper." Calcaterra spent the late 1960s working with biochemists, microbiologists, and organic chemists to transform that blank paper into numerous products, including an enzyme that made Tide® laundry detergent more effective. "That's how I broke into biotechnology," he says, adding that at the time the field still "had a little bit of black magic, a lot less ability to predict what was going to happen."

Calcaterra, D.Sc. '72, decided to deepen his own ability by entering Washington's engineering doctoral program. He fondly recalls playing intramural football with the chemical engineering faculty, some of whom were not much older than he was. This camaraderie didn't stop faculty members from taking their role seriously, though; they had recently decided to toughen degree standards, and Calcaterra was the first to take his oral comprehensive exam under the new guidelines. He froze and found himself unable to answer many questions. His professors' words were familiar: "Bob, we know you can do better." They asked him to come back in a year and retake the exam.

Subsequently, the faculty failed 12 students in a row, but when Calcaterra returned nine months later, he became the first to pass under the new requirements. He went on to complete his dissertation and earn his degree, working with department chair and adviser Eric Wager on ways to keep spacecraft re-entry shields from overheating.

 

"The potential of helping people succeed here is very exciting. It's work that truly can change the world," says Robert Calcaterra.

 

With his doctorate complete, Calcaterra accepted a job in Illinois with Amoco. He worked first on a yeast fermentation project, then for the company's department of Technology Forecasting and Assessment, making strategic decisions based on likely technological developments.

His knowledge of fermentation techniques led him next to Coors' Boulder, Colorado, headquarters, where in the 1980s he took responsibility as director of research; the area grew from 30 employees to nearly 300. He was responsible for all brewing and container research, quality assurance, patents and licensing, and some engineering at the Coors plant.

After nine years Coors decided to reorganize, and Calcaterra chose to try something new. "I thought it might be fun to become an entrepreneur," says Calcaterra, who began looking for work with a start-up company. A Boulder, Colorado, consortium approached him with a different idea. "They asked if I might be interested, instead of working with one company, in working with 15 or 20." Intrigued, Calcaterra agreed—and took on the task of creating the Boulder Technology Incubator.

Like all business incubators, the Boulder endeavor selected entrepreneurs with promising ideas and helped them put top-notch management teams and business plans into place; it also provided guidance on investment strategies, patent protection, and fund-raising issues. The Boulder incubator focused primarily on the telecommunications, software, and hardware industries. So did the Arizona Technology Incubator, whose management Calcaterra started several years later. Then, in 1998, he was approached about returning to St. Louis—and to biotechnology.

The Nidus Center for Scientific Enterprise, funded by Monsanto, was part of a vision first articulated by William Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University; Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden; and Virginia Weldon, retired senior vice president of public policy for Monsanto. They realized that St. Louis, located at the geographic heart of most of the nation's crop production, was well-positioned to become a world center for plant science and biotechnology, or a "biobelt." At their initial urging, much of St. Louis has gotten behind both the Nidus Center and the new Danforth Plant Science Center.

 
Jennifer Davila-Aponte is a senior scientist for Divergence L.L.C. Divergence is a biotech research company using genomics and bioinformatics technologies to identify target genes in the control of parasitic nematodes. Divergence's focus is on plant and animal health.

 

For Calcaterra, this community support was part of the Nidus Center's appeal. "The more I saw of the commitment the St. Louis community has to the center, the more interested I became." He returned to the Midwest in 1999 and immediately began asking the same question he'd asked as an engineer: "I said, 'Okay, we have a blank sheet of paper—now how are we going to do this?'"

The answer involved the help of everyone from St. Louis' several universities to its Regional Chamber and Growth Association. Thanks to the local community, Calcaterra has helped others establish three venture capital funds for the life science community, though none existed when he arrived.

In January 2000, the center officially opened its doors. By the end of 2001, six companies will have moved in. Those companies are working on everything from medical image retention to improving cancer detection to drug delivery, as well as from transgenic crops to stopping nematodes that attack crops. Calcaterra and Nidus' board seek would-be companies that can "do significantly better" than others have done. "We look for research that's enabling, substantive, and unique, and well beyond where other researchers are. We're not doing evolutionary things. We're doing revolutionary things."

In that context, the rewards for doing better go far beyond personal achievement. "The potential of helping people succeed here is very exciting," Calcaterra says. "It's work that truly can change the world."

 

Janni Simner, A.B. '89, is a free-lance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.