Persistence pays for alumnus who leads CALS biotech spinoff

Date posted: February 7, 2013

Dr. Giles ShihBecky Kirkland photoDr. Giles Shih and his father, Jason, founded BRI in 1999. Today its products are sold in 25 countries.

When College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumnus Dr. Giles Shih talks about the success of his company, BioResource International (BRI), he sometimes mentions the Louis Pasteur quote “chance favors the prepared mind.”

It was a prepared mind that led Shih’s father, N.C. State University poultry scientist Dr. Jason Shih, to understand that something he observed in a chicken house could have important implications for poultry nutrition.

And it has been a prepared – and persistent – mind that has allowed Giles Shih to lead the company commercializing his father’s discoveries through a tough start-up phase into a period of growth and expansion both here in North Carolina and abroad.

Jason and Giles Shih founded BRI in 1999 to develop and sell enzymes to enhance animal and human health. The company got its start after the elder Shih noticed that feathers found in chicken manure disappeared over time. He and a graduate student tracked down the enzyme responsible for breaking down keratin, the tough protein in the feathers, and BRI now produces supplements that use the enzyme to allow poultry to more easily digest proteins and absorb nutrients in animal feed.

Today, BRI has 18 employees, an office in Research Triangle Park and a manufacturing building in Apex. What’s more, its products are sold in some 25 countries worldwide. The company is also looking at other natural products that could help increase agricultural productivity and sustainability.

Because of its own growth, the company is gaining notice in North Carolina and beyond. In October, BRI made it onto the Inc. 500 list as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States, and in November the Triangle Business Journal honored BRI as a Fast 50 company, an award that’s based on a company’s revenue growth and profits over three years.

Earlier in the year, the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce named BRI a “Fast 50 Asian American Business” based on revenue growth over the past three years, and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce gave the company its second consecutive Pinnacle Business Award for steady growth and profitability.

Meanwhile, Giles Shih received a CALS Outstanding Alumni Award in November. He also was named to the board of directors of the CED, or Council on Entrepreneurial Development, based in Research Triangle Park. And he serves on the state Biotechnology Center’s Agricultural Biotechnology Advisory Council.

Shih comes to those positions well prepared. A microbiologist by training, Shih earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Cornell University in 1989, then came to N.C. State University in 1991 to study under Dr. Eric Miller, now the Microbiology Department head.

At the time, he was trying to figure out if he wanted to become a researcher or pursue a medical degree. He decided to go for a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics at Emory University in Atlanta.

While at Emory, Shih did consulting work that led him to meet “a lot of passionate and enthusiastic scientists who were trying to start up their own companies around something they had discovered in the lab,” he said. “So it got me thinking, wow, maybe there are some other opportunities outside of the lab after I finish my graduate research.”

He and his father started talking about building a company around the six patents that Jason Shih had been granted while he was a faculty member at N.C. State, and the two founded BRI in 1999. Giles became the company’s president and chief executive officer, and to prepare himself for the challenges of being an entrepreneur, he soon enrolled in the master’s of business administration program at Duke University.

Those early years of the company were hard, he says. “We ran the company on a shoestring; we just bootstrapped our way through … until things started to go in our favor.”

It was around 2008 that the Shihs got what Giles calls “our lucky break.”

“Oil prices hit their high. And as a result, corn and soybean prices also spiked up, and so all of a sudden people were looking for ways to save on their costs on feed, because feed ingredients are one of the major costs for poultry producers and pork producers,” he explains. “So we were at the right place at the right time with this enzyme.”

That year, BRI signed a distribution agreement with Novus International, a global animal nutrition company based in St. Louis. “They saw the opportunity to work with us to be a global distributor for our product,” Shih says. “We were very well placed at that time to take advantage of that opportunity.”

In the past four years, Shih adds, the company has “grown tremendously” because of increased demand for poultry in countries such as Brazil, India and China. And as the world population continues to climb and demand more food, there are opportunities for BRI to continue to grow.

Shih attributes some of BRI’s growth and its prospects for the future to its relationship with N.C. State and its Research Triangle location.

“What we have achieved is not due to just me and my father but also to the environment in which we’ve grown,” he says. “We have been successful because of the support we’ve gotten from N.C. State, from the Poultry Science Department on through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and also, in the early days, the [technology] incubator on Centennial Campus.”

As Shih looks to the future, he believes BRI will be a “much bigger, diversified company with lots to offer animal production, animal nutrition, animal health as well as other food-related areas, such as functional foods.”

— Dee Shore

 

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