URC Profile

Michael Koziel

Title: Co-Founder, President & CEO
Company:
 Athenix Corp.
Year started: 2001
Industry: Biological Sciences
Offices: Research Triangle Park, NC
Activity: Plant Biotechnology
Annual Revenue: Sold in 2009 to Bayer CropScience for $400 million
Employees: 65 at time of sale
Attended: University of Michigan, Wayne State University
Degree: B.S., Zoology, U-M, 1973; M.S., Biological Sciences, WSU, 1975; Ph.D., Biological Sciences, WSU, 1981

“Most of the success I’ve had came from ignoring dogma. To get things to work correctly, I had to ignore constraints and do things nobody had done before.”

Michael Koziel led the team that in 1995 introduced the world’s first corn plant genetically modified to be insect resistant. He and his research team also developed one of the world’s largest collections of traits used to create crops able to tolerate herbicides aimed at unwanted plants and deal with insect pests, leading the way in the plant biotechnology and chemical industries. The company that he founded in 2001, Athenix, was acquired in 2009 for $400 million by Bayer CropScience, a German company with its U.S. headquarters in North Carolina. The deal included cash payments of $35 million for achieving certain development milestones and ranked that year as one of the 10 largest venture capital exits nationally.

Since then, Koziel has founded two more companies and serves on their board of directors. AgBiome brings together many of Koziel’s colleagues from Athenix, who are focusing on microbes and how they interact with plants to increase crop production. The second company, Xinehta (Athenix spelled backward), is licensing technology developed in China by another Athenix alumnus. This technology has shown a 20 percent yield increase in field studies in an elite variety of rice. Koziel is looking to conduct field studies in the U.S. using that technology targeted at other crops such as sugar cane, corn, wheat and soybeans.

“I think it makes the most sense for us older entrepreneurs to work on our country’s biggest issues like energy – if we fail, it won’t matter as we’ve already had our careers.”

Koziel received his undergraduate degree in zoology from the University of Michigan, but quickly learned that jobs for zoologists were few and far between. So he decided to go back to school. A Detroit native, he headed to Wayne State University to get his master’s degree. It was by luck that a professor in the Biological Sciences Department, Dr. Albert Siegel, invited Koziel to work in his lab studying the impact of viruses on plants, a focus he’s stuck with throughout his career.

Koziel credits much of his success to the environment at WSU that teaches critical thinking skills, not just rote memorization. He was able to look at a problem and say that he didn’t know what the solution looked like, but he knew what didn’t work and started from there, a process that has served him well. Looking toward the future, Koziel has his eyes set on U.S. energy issues. He believes that producing oil from crops is achievable if there’s enough collective will between scientists, farmers, the auto industry, oil companies and the government. If that happens, he’ll want to be at the forefront helping to lead the charge.