Q&A: Brent H. Shanks

Brent H. Shanks wears a few hats in the world of innovation, including the director for the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals, the Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering at Iowa State University and the Mike and Jean Steffenson Chair, Chemical & Biological Engineering.

How do you personally define innovation?
Innovation is uniquely integrating knowledge to create something novel that solves a societal challenge/need.

What did you learn about innovating from your parents/mentors?
My parents were quite broadly curious and valued knowledge. They were both raised on farms, so they had an ethos of making things work.

What was the first significant innovation, invention or process that you were associated with?
Working in a company after graduate school, we had a team that produced a new product for the petrochemical processing industry with improved performance and lower raw materials costs. The product ended up being sold to companies around the world.

What are some of the ways that ISU and the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) cultivates a culture of innovation?
CBiRC tries to advance innovation using three principles:
• Clear definition of the problem that we are trying to solve.
• Encouraging interactions between multidisciplinary researchers.
• Providing support to nurture and develop innovative ideas.

What recent innovation has prompted a “wow” reaction from you?
There are quite a number that I find remarkable. One such is the ongoing innovation in the automotive industry, but I am also concerned about the concomitant societal dislocations we are headed toward with that emerging technology.

What are two or three of the most exciting areas of innovation that you are working in?
In the early 21st century, interest in biobased chemicals was largely driven with an eye toward sustainability. While I believe that remains an important long-term goal, I think an exciting opportunity with biobased chemicals is their potential to provide novel chemical compounds that cannot be viably accessed from crude oil. These novel molecules will lead to the next generation of consumer products, materials, nutraceuticals, antimicrobials, etc. I am particularly enthused about recent work in CBiRC that has identified different novel biobased chemicals that appear to have promising performance as an antimicrobial, insecticide and improved Nylon-type polymer, respectively.

What technology advances will make it easier for bioscience companies to create new products?
Biological systems are sufficiently complex that their use and alteration has historically relied on phenomenological behavior. However, we are in the midst of rapid technology development that will allow us to better understand these complex biological systems and as such have more targeted control of them. One such technology receiving significant recent attention is Crispr for more precise gene editing. However, our understanding at the organism level is also rapidly advancing.

What are the key ingredients of an innovator or the folks you would like to attract to ISU and the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals?
I value researchers with deep knowledge in their area of expertise who are looking to creatively apply that knowledge with researchers having complimentary deep knowledge. I find innovation that occurs at the interface between different disciplinary expertise to be particularly exciting, so I hope to find people that have interest in those types of interactions.

What do you see as the most pressing global innovation challenge?

I think it is how to sustainably and equitably support the needs of a growing population. This was probably a somewhat unfair answer to the question as it cascades into challenges in a number of realms, e.g., energy, food, health, environment, etc.

What are the emerging areas of bioscience?
Better understanding of biological systems has broad implications to almost all aspects of life. For example, materials, crops, animals and medicine are all areas in which bioscience applications are poised for rapid innovations.