Tuesday, November 3, 2015

C&EN: Provivi is hiring chemists

Also in this week's C&EN cover story on chemistry startups, Provivi is hiring chemists! From the article by Melody Baumgardner: 
...Coelho’s entry into the entrepreneurial waters is Provivi, which he started in 2013 before he even defended his Ph.D. thesis. Provivi seeks to cost-effectively make pheromones that farmers can use to draw insects away from crops and prevent them from finding each other to mate. 
At its core is Coelho’s skill in manipulating biocatalysts to produce useful chemicals that are otherwise difficult to make. He earned his molecular assembly chops working with mutated versions of the enzyme cytochrome P450.... 
...Provivi is now hiring—its website shows multiple job listings—as it gears up its new technology. “We decided we are a very small company, and our bandwidth is accordingly limited,” Coelho says. “So we’ll do one thing and start with a project we are passionate about: sustainable insect control. It will be economical but also environmentally sound.”
From Provivi's website, there are 11 positions for scientists; 5 of them have "chemist" in their title. (I would link here, but it goes to PDFs.) 


  1. Pedro is a friend and classmate of mine from Caltech. He's a really special person. Extremely intelligent, motivated, and unusually down-to-earth. Any of your readers would be truly lucky to work with him.

  2. For the analytical chemist's position, they require you to be "able to lift 15 - 40 pounds". Interestingly, interns only need to be able to lift 15 - 25 pounds, while organic chemists apparently don't need to be able to do any lifting. Any idea where this is coming from?

    1. The lifting requirement may be due this responsibility.- "Ensure analytical equipment is maintained in good working order; troubleshoot and perform minor repairs as needed."

      Changing oil in mass spec mechanical or turbomolecular pumps requires some lifting.

      It would have been sufficient to say "Able to lift up to 40 pounds."

    2. ... no it wouldn't, anyone can lift UP TO 40 pounds....
      But good point, thanks!

  3. It's usually not that tough to make your pheromone blend; the hard part is figuring out what it is. Cytochrome P450 is a gimmick, but the concept is very promising. You could synthesize the pheromones using traditional chemistry as well, but anything that speeds it up and lowers cost is better. Though, cost is not a factor as much since you don't need to make tons of materials. Tens of kilos are enough for a whole country depending on the pest. There are a few companies like this, and the one we worked for made some extremely bad decisions and the CEO ruined it. They were really bad at selling the concept to farmers who were getting advertising from the pesticide industry. If they attack the pesticide industry through media, they might actually get some publicity and contracts, the lack of which killed the company I made pheromones for.

    It's such a good green chemistry concept, from lowering the amounts of material used and its safety, as well as selectivity for only one species of insect. It's guaranteed employment for chemists and biologists (since evolution will shift sex pheromone blend composition eventually), that it's got to catch on eventually and put a lot of the pesticide chemists out of business.

    1. How do you avoid being a walking fly paper? Since pheromones work at such low concentration I imagine that you would pick up enough of them just walking through the lab.

    2. That's really only a concern for a small minority of species. I think the gypsy moth is a famous one. Even though it does have a (four I believe) component sex pheromone blend, the major component, disparlure, will attract gypsy moths to you a month after and even if you wash your shirt. Maybe those guys spilled a drop on their shirt? There was an anecdote at my university, which had a pretty big pheromone push, of one chemist going out for a picnic on the weekend and seeing that moths (not gypsy moth) that the lab was working on were circling around him.

      In most cases it doesn't happen, as sex pheromones are a blend and even if your major one is 95% or more, if you don't have some minor component that might show up as a small peak sitting on top of a shoulder of some volatile in your GC/MS trace (so good luck figuring out the structure; you might have 16 intelligent guesses and only get it right on the last guess), it's not going to be that effective.

      Also, even if you do have your perfect sex pheromone blend, it might not mean that moths are attracted to you. Sure, it's good enough for mating disruption, but a volatile sex pheromone blend might only attract moths to your vicinity. They'll fly around you, but they are looking for heavier hydrocarbons that tell them a female is really only a meter away. And after that, there are also non-volatile contact pheromones, which we really don't bother to make since they are useless for the task. But they do help insects in stopping them from mating with other similar species, or even sub-species. If two moths are indistinguishable, even genetically almost identical, different populations might have different concentrations or stereoisomer ratios in their blend, so they will not mate.

      It's a really interesting and practical field. You can target the insect you want very effectively. But there is a lot of subpar science in the field, and people getting away with not doing due diligence in figuring out the blend and then publishing it. Obviously, if several labs publish a different ratio of the sex pheromone blend of the same moth, they cannot all be correct. A company might have bigger incentives than academia in this case though.

    3. Fascinating! Thanks for the guide.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20