Chem grad student gets named to Forbes' 30 Under 30 list


What a way to start your final semester at Purdue: Ian Klein, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list just five months before he is set to graduate.

Klein, 27, was honored in the “Manufacturing” category. Klein has excelled in the department but it’s his work for Spero Energy that got the most notice by the folks at Forbes. Klein helped forge the Purdue startup with Chemistry Prof. Madhi Abu-Omar in the spring of 2014. The company that specializes in extracting chemicals that could be used as biofuels, fragrances and flavors out of wood lignin has gained momentum during the last several months.

“We wanted to break down plants to useful fuels or useful chemicals,” Klein explained. “We began to see that this was a new way to use lignin that no one else has used before. They were burning lignin for low value but we found we can upgrade it to high value chemicals that had interesting, large markets in the flavor and fragrance industries.”

Spero Energy recently received small business grants from the United States Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

The company is based in the Purdue Research Park but a lot of work is still done in Klein and Abu-Omar’s lab within Brown Laboratory on Purdue campus. Like any new company, things started off small but expansion was desired. To get to this goal, the scientists had to reach out to the business-minded.

Ian Klein
Ian Klein

They had the foresight to ask for business help from Purdue Foundry, a hub for Purdue faculty, staff and students to find fast, effective ways to move their ideas to the marketplace.

“We didn’t have a business background,” Klein said, “but they were able to give us the tools to learn about the business side and connect us with MBA students and other business minded people to teach us the business side of things and learn how to take this technology from the laboratory and move it to commercial production.”

Tim Peoples, Purdue Foundry entrepreneur in residence and regulatory affairs officer, took the lead in giving Spero business guidance.

“The Foundry team helped Ian and Prof. Abu-Omar solidify their business plan, prepare their go to market strategy and get ready to pitch their company to investors,” Peoples stated. “We also got them connected to alumni in the same industry as Spero for mentoring.”

Peoples realizes Spero is still a new company. He believes Klein, Abu-Omar and the rest of the team must scale up their technical process and have their products tested by customers and on the business side, Spero must “validate their product with customers, identify strategic partners in the industry and hire a business development person to further develop their sales processes.”

But Peoples is impressed with Klein and Spero’s start.

“I believe Spero has a bright future with the production of fine chemicals from renewable sources,” he said. “They have additional technologies to help expand their portfolio as they grow. I believe this is the first of several startup companies for Ian. I think he has the bug and the right makeup and character to lead technology startup companies.”

Abu-Omar’s first impressions of Klein were “a thoughtful young graduate student, looking forward to doing research in a vibrant lab. He was very interested in pursuing problems in sustainable chemistry and research in renewable energy.”

A few years later, Klein is one of Abu-Omar’s most trusted scientists at Spero.

“He is very thorough in his science, clear in his communication, and an excellent problem solver,” he said of his student. “He works well with others as well, a team player."

Forbes, Abu-Omar and Purdue Foundry know what they are talking about. Klein said he is pleased to be in on a startup that is fueled by his scientific passion.

“I’ve always been very interested in the thought of renewable fuels,” Klein said. “When I first came to Purdue, I was interested in making renewable fuels but we found we were able to make some very interesting renewable chemicals that have a demand in the marketplace.

“I never expected to get this entrepreneurial and business experience in my PhD studies at Purdue, but I think it’s an invaluable asset I’ve gained working with the foundry and Purdue Research Foundation. As a scientist, I think it’s important for every scientist to be able to sell your ideas, whether it’s in an entrepreneurial setting or if its in an academic setting where you have to sell your ideas in a sense for your project to get funding.”

With Forbes fame now behind him, Klein is concentrating on finishing his graduate studies and continuing a career and company that is already established.

“My plans are to stay and work fulltime with Spero,” Klein revealed. “We have some big milestones coming up in 2015 as we move to commercialization. We’re building larger reactors and also purchasing some reactors to demonstrate that this technology can work on a larger scale.”

Abu-Omar was happy to see Klein on the Forbes list. The young scientist is deserving of some national exposure.

“He has proven himself as one of our star graduate students in the lab,” Abu-Omar said, “and he has shown a knack for entrepreneurship and innovation. He is not afraid to try and learn new things. He ventured out the normal comfort zone of a graduate student and started learning about the chemical business and green manufacturing.”

Purdue University College of Science, 150 N. University St, West Lafayette, IN 47907 • Phone: (765) 494-1729, Fax: (765) 494-1736

Student Advising Office: (765) 494-1771, Fax: (765) 496-3015 • Science IT, (765) 494-4488

© 2015 Purdue University | An equal access/equal opportunity university | Copyright Complaints

Trouble with this page? Disability-related accessibility issue? Please contact the College of Science Webmaster.