It's not that Alex Huang isn't a fascinating guy, having worked in Silicon Valley for years, including a stint with Steve Jobs at NeXT Computer. And it's not that his fellow valley CEOs don't want to socialize with him at industry luncheons.
It's more that they remember him for the seemingly odd project that his San Carlos startup is working on.
In a land obsessed with social networking, smartphones, apps, Web search, and the design of the chips that run the world, Huang's focus is a little different. His company, LiveLeaf Bioscience, is working to use the restorative properties within plants to improve the intestinal health of pigs. Yep. Porkers.
"People always remember me at conferences," Huang says. "'You're the guy at the lunch table talking about diarrhea."
Not a very sexy subject, he acknowledges, and really somewhat foreign to the world of Silicon Valley startups. But it turns out that the story of Huang and LiveLeaf is a lot more Silicon Valley than Des Moines, Iowa. In fact, LiveLeaf's battle against intestinal microbes is a microcosm of what goes on in Silicon Valley every day.
First, Huang and his co-founder, Gin Wu, stumbled into the work while trying to solve a different problem. (Think Intel (INTC) turning to microprocessors from memory chips or Twitter starting out as a podcasting platform.)
Huang and Wu were looking to the plant world for ways to reduce the spread of food- and water-borne illness in developing countries. At one point, working with veterinarians in Taiwan, they had farmers add certain plant compounds to the water in their pig troughs to see if that would purify the water. What the compounds did was dramatically reduce the duration of diarrhea bouts in pigs that drank the water. That was good news because the disease is a major killer of young pigs and along with the shorter bouts came an increase in survival rates. "It was an accident," Huang says. "It was one of those typical valley accidents."
Second, Huang and Wu immediately saw the global implications. (Think Facebook growing strongly in Brazil, India and Mexico.) China has more pigs -- by a lot -- than the United States has people. And in Europe, regulators are coming down hard on using antibiotics in agriculture and so European farmers are hungry for alternative ways to save their pigs. For farmers, pigs represent their livelihood. For the rest of the world, they are an important source of food.
"These farmers are asking for it," says Sam de Snoeck, a Dutch veterinarian, who's conducting trials with the plant compounds in the Netherlands. "They have seen the results."
And third, Huang and Wu knew that with modern communication tools they could assemble a team of experts no matter where the experts were working. (Think pretty much every Silicon Valley company except no-work-at-home Yahoo (YHOO).) LiveLeaf's star player in developing the compounds, marketed as a feed supplement called Grazix, is a veterinarian named Ching Ching Wu, no relation to Gin Wu. She lives in West Lafayette, Ind., because it's where she lived for years while a professor at Purdue University and also because, "this is where the pigs are."
The potential for the Silicon Valley model to solve problems is becoming clearer by the day. The idea -- open to almost any company -- is to build a cauldron of creativity and remain open to new ideas that might seem to come out of the blue. The ability to think big and beyond is huge.
Ching Ching Wu has spent a career as an animal expert and academic, teaching at Purdue, Mississippi State University and the University of Minnesota. She and her colleagues were skeptical when they first heard about LiveLeaf's work extracting healing compounds from plants without destroying or destabilizing their restorative powers.
"I'm a scientist. I do a high level of research," says Ching Ching Wu, who travels regularly to California since becoming LiveLeaf's director of animal science in June. "When we first looked at this, we were saying, 'What is this?' But I thought, 'I can't close my eyes to this thing, because it's working.' "
So Wu is working to expand the use of Grazix to other species. And when you consider that diarrhea kills roughly a million children a year worldwide, it won't surprise you that humans are on Wu's list of species to explore.
"One other thing, a pig is the best model for humans," she says, noting the similarity of the biological systems of the two. Time will tell how much success LiveLeaf has making life better for pigs and whether those benefits can be replicated in humans.
In the meantime, there is no harm in moving ahead while believing the sky is the limit.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.