Q & A: Jack Bobo, SVP and CCO of Intrexon
Jack Bobo can explain very complex science in simple ways. That’s his role as head of communication for Intrexon, a science and innovation company in food, agriculture, and health care.
In 2015, he was named one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology by Scientific American. It may be because of the breakthroughs the company has pioneered. Bobo has given more than 300 speeches on the future of food, the role of science and technology in feeding the world, and how to build consumer trust.
SF: You say that Intrexon is “the coolest company we’ve never heard of.” Why?
JB: The mission of Intrexon is to solve some of the world’s biggest problems through the application of biology. If it’s a big problem and there is a biological approach to it, it’s something we could be interested in. We work in health and food and energy. We’re one of those few companies that really cuts across all of these different sectors. That means we’re able to take what we learn from one sector and then apply it to others.
SF: Talk about some of the innovations.
JB: One of the wholly owned subsidiaries is Oakanagan Specialty Fruits, the first company to bring a non-browning, genetically engineered apple to market. The great thing about the “Arctic apple” is that eventually we hope to have most of the varieties that you would find in a grocery store available in that Arctic variety. So, we have Granny Smith and Golden Delicious today, and we’re working on Fuji approvals and more over time.
SF: Why apples?
JB: Apples are the third most wasted food item in the U.S. People don’t really think about it, but apples are lost at pretty much every stage of the process. The great thing about our apple is that it benefits every person who touches it throughout the entire value chain. It has real potential to take a bite out of that 40% food loss. New products may even develop because we’re able to provide apple slices without preservatives. It’s a very exciting opportunity to grow the market – in the same way the baby carrot market exploded growth in carrot consumption.
SF: Does it apply to other produce?
JB: An apple has broad applications across the entire food industry, so there could be nonbrowning peaches and pears and strawberries and avocados and lettuce, and other things. The apple is the product that proves the concept works and proves there’s a market, but it is absolutely not the end of the process. It is very much the beginning.
SF: How do farmers get engaged in the dialogue?
JB: If we want consumers to have confidence in the technologies that farmers are using, then we have to be worthy of their trust. We have to build social license, and in order to do that, we need to be part of the conversation. There’s a saying that claims people love farmers, but they hate farming. I don’t think you can hate farming if you really get to know a farmer. People like the idea of farmers, but they just don’t understand what they’re doing. We need to get more people whose day job is farming – not people like me– to engage in conversations and be out there talking to the public.
Not everyone has to do it, but we certainly could use a lot more people doing it. Right now, there are a lot of conferences where people are disparaging the American farm system, and you look around, and there’s not a single farmer in the room. That’s not necessarily the fault of the farmers who aren’t invited to those events. Farmers can speak up and demand a seat at those tables.
NAME: Jack Bobo
TITLE: Senior vice president and chief communications officer, Intrexon
LOCATION: Washington, D.C.
EDUCATION: Bobo has five degrees: a B.A. in both psychology and chemistry, a B.S. in biology, an M.S. in environmental science, and a J.D., all from Indiana University.
BACKGROUND: After undergraduate work, Bobo went into the Peace Corps and taught science in central Africa. He joined Intrexon (dna.com) from the U.S. Department of State, where he worked for the past 13 years as a senior adviser on global food policy, biotechnology, and agricultural trade. He was also an attorney at international law firm Crowell & Moring LLP.