The Quest for a Low Emission Chicken

Giles Shih 99G, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of BRI, has used biotechnology to work towards growing better livestock, both in terms of sustainability as well as economically.

By Giles Shih as told to Elizabeth Cobb Durel

Each year the Emory Entrepreneur Network honors and recognizes outstanding alumni entrepreneurs who excel in their fields by demonstrating the highest caliber of innovations. Eleven nominees were chosen in categories as varied as Business to Business, Media and Entertainment, and Healthcare. The eleven winners were honored in January, and going forward, EmoryWire will be introducing you to each one. We’ll talk about their motivations, the future, and the best advice they received. We hope you’ll come back to meet them.

Almost two decades ago, Giles Shih 99G graduated from Emory’s PhD program and went into business with his dad, who was then a professor in agriculture and life sciences at a school in North Carolina. “My dad had done a lot of work in the poultry industry and held a few patents,” says Shih, who had been doing some part-time consulting for venture capital firms looking to invest in biotechnology start-ups.

“One day he called and said why don’t we form a company and see where it can go,” he added, saying he had been interested in using his degrees in a career ouside the laboratory. “I was just finishing my thesis and I figured it couldn't be any harder than going to grad school,” says Shih.

And thus, BRI was born with the mission to use biotechnology to help animal producers economically and sustainably supply high value protein to feed the world. BRI is profitable and growing with a global reach (and a quest to develop a lower emission chicken.)

Dr. Shih, the 2018 Emory Entrepreneur Award winner in the Business to Business category, talked with EmoryWire, covering a variety subjects ranging from the need for a lower emission chicken to why optimism is a crucial characteristic for an entrepreneur.

What does BRI do?

Our products help chickens and pigs grow healthier in a sustainable way, without using drugs and without antibiotics or other potentially harmful growth promoters. We use a feed additive that improves the nutritional value of the feed so it helps improve nutrient digestibility. The animals absorb more nutrients and grow faster, and as a byproduct if you will, the animals also don't excrete as much waste because they're capturing more value through the ingredients. I've talked about our goal of developing a low emission chicken.

Low emission chicken?

When you use our products, the animals can absorb more protein and nutrients from the feed. They excrete less ammonia into the environment. We study and analyze that, so along with growth, we can help lower the environmental impact through the waste stream. So it's not going to solve the whole issue around waste, but it is a part of the solution.

Why is that significant?

The value proposition for using our products is simply to help farmers grow the same size chicken or pig on less feed, or bigger size animal on the same amount of feed. There’s a lot of science and research that goes into optimizing that equation, but that is what it comes down to.

Have you ever failed?

As a startup, by definition you're going to fail and it's a matter of how you manage through those failures—though I consider them learning experiences, not failures. We've learned some things, you know, mainly around personnel. Hire the right talent in terms of building the team and also fire people or make tough decisions. Occasionally we have erred on the side of caution and maybe a lack of urgency, but in not making a decision, that is also a decision. 

Why are entrepreneurs optimists?

I'm an optimist and I think most entrepreneurs are wired as optimists. By definition entrepreneurs are creating something that wasn't there before. You're envisioning a future that does not yet exist. You're thinking it into being, and then executing on that vision, and that plan. And to do that, you have to envision a future inclusive of your vision. That requires some optimistic thinking like, “Why not?”  “Why couldn't this work?”  That's how companies and technologies and businesses are breathed into existence. Then the hard work comes in.

What is it about Emory that keeps you engaged?

It's really interesting to interact with smart people. There is value in getting people together who have a curiosity and a bent for learning. It’s really a diverse group and personally, for me, Emory taught me how to think independently, how to think critically as a scientist, as a researcher, and as an intellectual. I enjoy that interaction. The second part is just giving back to the school that helped me in my career development and put me where I'm at now.

Why is it important to give back?

Recently, I had a chance to talk to young PhD students, sitting where I was a few decades ago, about my career path. When I was at Emory, I was toying with the idea of different career tracks. Then there wasn't as much discussion about alternative career — it was either the faculty track in academia or the CDC or NIH or a government agency. A few would go into industry and work for maybe a pharma company,  but entrepreneurship or other alternative careers weren't really discussed. I'm glad that there is a broader discussion happening now. So if I can use my experience to encourage some grad students to think about entrepreneurship, it’s a good use of my time.

What the real value of education?

In my early days it was always about "Where's the best place I can go to, to get the best training in my major, in the sciences." And, of course that's important, but what I'm realizing now is it's also those connections, the relationships, and the network that you built that stay with you. It's really the strength of those connections that helped me to achieve my goals. Build your network where you are.

More Dr. Shih:

Describe yourself in one sentence.

An optimistic, values-based learner who really wants to make a difference in the world and the people around me.

What is your secret talent?

Being aware of others’ needs. In my role it is very easy to be very "me"-centered, but because of my orientation towards helping others, it's allowed me to see things a little bit differently.

What's the best advice you've received?

I read a book by John Maxwell (Editor’s note: an author, speaker, and pastor who concentrates on leadership) and he talks about adding value to people. What this means to me is that anybody you meet, you know there's something you can offer them of value. It's up to me to figure out what that is. And, if they have a similar mindset they can do the same. It's a beautiful thing when it works out to have a mutually beneficial type of virtuous cycle of people helping each other.

Editor's Note: Giles Shih is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of BRI. If you would like to keep up with him, please follow @GilesShih on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn. For more information about the Emory Entrepreneur Award honorees, visit alumni.emory.edu/eenawards.