Hedge Apples and New Graduate Fellowships: Alumnus Todd Johnson and colleagues give back.

Thanks to a generous donation from Todd and Susan Johnson, the Chemistry Department was able to create two new fellowships this year The Pomifera Research Fellowship is available to outstanding Ph.D. candidates majoring in synthetic organic or inorganic chemistry. Emily Pinter in Professor Silas Cook’s group is the first awardee.  The Todd & Susan Johnson Relocation Award was created to help first generation college students and Pell grant recipients relocate to Bloomington as they start their graduate careers in our Chemistry Program.  Todd and Susan, along with fellow IU alumnus Erik Tjaden (Ph. D. in 1993 with Jeff Stryker), and Lindsay Colombe, are co-founders of Pomifera, a company dedicated to creating high quality personal care products utilizing the bioactive oil obtained from the seed of the hedge apple or “Osage orange” (Maclura Pomifera). Todd earned his Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry working under the supervision of recently retired Distinguished Emeritus Professor Ken Caulton between 1988 and 1992.  He went on to a post-doctoral fellowship at Utah (with John Gladysz), and then worked at Monsanto.  Throughout his career he has held a variety of strategic positions at smaller pharmaceutical companies prior to founding his own companies, Osage Healthcare, Inc, and Pomifera LLC.

IU Alumnus Todd Johnson and a hedge apple. Photo courtesy of Todd Johnson

I had a chance to sit down with Todd and Susan while they were visiting their daughter who is a first-year graduate student in Chemistry at IU.  Normally such an interview would cover biographical information or focus on an alumnus’s time here, but Todd published a full interview-style autobiography, The Hedge.  Todd Johnson and the Story of Pomifera© Oil, in collaboration with Robert Joseph Ahola in 2018.  Chapter 3 of his book covers his time at IU in broad strokes, and I recommend the reading the entire book as it is very uplifting and inspirational.  “The Hedge” entertainingly describes Todd’s complex and very human journey to entrepreneurial success with Pomifera.  Our conversation instead focused on Ken Caulton’s approach to research, lessons one can learn about charting their own path, and how entrepreneurs should value their employees to ensure success.

Todd and Susan Johnson

The first thing I noticed was Todd’s genuine positive outlook on life.  He knows his strengths. Todd describes himself as a hard-headed mad scientist, and he looks for people to help mitigate his weaknesses.  He was quick to credit Susan as being a major source of strength and a trusted colleague.  Susan helps modify his grand ideas to keep them grounded and she is an important collaborator in his ventures. He is the dreamer; she is the believer and voice of reason.  Susan makes sure Todd stays grounded as they chase their dreams together.  Todd believes strongly in a “merit-driven universe” where those who are the best in their fields can succeed if they take appropriate risks to seize the opportunities life presents them.

Todd has operated “without a safety net” for most of his life and he is always looking for new ways to grow and utilize his talents.  Todd has also lived the tenet “never burn a bridge” as his career has seen him be re-hired by three former employers after working with another firm.  Interestingly, he pointed out that Monsanto, where he had a distinguished early career, was one place to which he had not returned for a second term of employment.  Todd’s 20+ year experience in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries prepared him for the many challenges he would face when launching Pomifera.  Those experiences drove him to choose the “natural extract” path for his product rather than isolating, purifying, characterizing, and marketing a particular component of hedge apple or the seed oil.

Todd is also a very humble entrepreneur, and he puts no stock in fancy titles.  Once when returning to work for a company he had left previously he was asked to come up with a title for his new position.  He suggested “Supreme Galactic Commander” in part to poke fun at the absurdity of aspiring to a lofty title and because it sounded cool.  He never forgot where he came from, and he wanted to bring renewed economic vibrancy to rural Southeast Iowa.  He described how he and a banking friend turned a farm building into a pilot plant for deseeding hedge apples, in part because it had a certified scale, so he could legally purchase hedge apples from local farmers.  He is very proud to employ 50 people in Mt. Pleasant and Fairfield, IA that help turn an undesirable poor tasting fruit’s seed into highly valuable, clinically proven, skin care products.  Not only that, but his company will also spend around $1.5 Million procuring 1500 tons of hedge apples from the Bloomfield, Iowa area this fall.

Logo of Pomifera LLC Courtesy of Todd Johnson

When our conversation drifted to his time at IU, Todd continuously pointed out the variety of ways Ken Caulton influenced his trajectory.  In his book, Todd called Ken a “another father figure” in his life.  Todd was a self-described diamond in the rough who often tried to break through walls rather than looking for a door or ladder.  Professor Caulton was able to polish this diamond as Ken is an excellent judge of talent and knew Todd had potential.  When asked what Ken thought of Todd at their first meeting, Ken replied, “you were clearly a very bright hard charging human being, but I had to find a way to corral you.”  Todd recalled that Ken many times approached scientific problems deductively rather than inductively.  That is, instead of starting with a hypothesis and performing experiments to prove it, Ken would often review the body of knowledge about a chemical system and either look for its limits or propose ways to challenge the conventional wisdom.  The process of finding exceptions to the rules can lead to great insights and discoveries.

Another thing Ken excelled at was maintaining proper separation between his personal and professional lives.  Todd recalled getting “out over his skis” at one point and Ken wrote him a letter in longhand on official IU stationary in an IU envelope reminding Todd to get “back to what got you here” rather than acting like someone else.  Ken was writing this as his mentor, thus the more formal mode of communication of the stationary, but a handwritten note to convey sincerity.  Todd took that lesson to heart and has not forgotten it in the intervening 30+ years.  Todd frequently reads this letter as a needed reminder to stay on a good path.

One humorous anecdote concerned the time when Todd and his grad student colleagues tried to upgrade some very cheap vodka into something much more exquisite.  Ken’s natural academic strength is in molecular orbital theory, not synthesis, so Ken rarely came into lab during Todd’s time at IU.  One evening a group of three students were using a newly acquired spinning band distillation apparatus to upgrade “Quittin’ Time” brand vodka obtained from a local shop.  Spinning band distillation columns are typically used to isolate individual components with very similar boiling points from complex mixtures and vodka is not the exactly the most complicated mixture in the liquor store.  Ken just happened to walk in the lab during this “experiment”.  Ken graciously accepted Todd’s dubious explanation as to what they were doing, left them to their own devices, and never brought up the incident again.  Apparently the highly refined distillate they recovered made excellent citrus infusions.  It was the one and only time they ever did this in the lab as it was understood Ken would not approve any more of this behavior in the lab.  Author’s note, spinning band systems are now being marketed to extract high-purity CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids from hemp or cannabis oils in one pass without liquid chromatography.

Another lesson Todd had learned from Ken Caulton is to always be quick to share credit when collaborating with others.  Throughout our conversation Todd mentioned multiple individuals at all ranks and in a variety of fields that directly contributed to his successes.  Todd incorporates one more attribute modeled by Ken Caulton that continues to serve him to this day: never speak poorly of others, even your competition.  Todd recalled an incident that occurred while he was visiting potential graduate schools where a competing institution (Purdue University) attempted to downplay IU’s reputation in its attempt to woo Todd.  The attempt backfired and instead spoke ill of the competitor in Todd’s estimation.  Similarly, Ken and Todd both speak to all people with humility and respect regardless of their title (or lack thereof).  Todd has treated executives at former employers, local farmers selling him hedge apples, pipe fitters building his factory, and accountants trying to reign in expenses with equanimity as each contributes to the success of the final endeavor.

We also discussed what IU Chemistry should stress as it continues to train new scientists.  Todd pointed out that fundamental research is what academia does best.  Established companies and well-funded startups that leverage tremendous amounts of funding, human capital, and legal resources towards applications (e.g. developing a drug, scaling up an energy capture system, or creating a diagnostic test) and with a degree of focus that is difficult to replicate in most research groups.  IU should continue to teach asymmetric thinking and problem-solving as these skills are far more important in the long run than only the technical information graduate student learns during the course of their research.  He also stressed how critical it is to learn effective communication of complex ideas to non-specialists.  In almost all research endeavors there will be a point at which a manager, executive, accountant, dean, client, or regulator will need to understand some of the science one is trying to accomplish.  One of Todd’s strengths is the ability to bridge that chasm with passion, honesty, and the technical skills to back up what he says with data.  He also pointed out that academics need to deliberately engage with industry to make sure they graduate students with the right set of skills.  The current patent-driven focus at many universities is missing the mark in Todd’s opinion.

In conclusion, Todd reiterated how crucial working with Ken was to his success.  He, Susan and Erik endowed the Pomifera Fellowship and Relocation Award to recognize Ken’s legacy and contribute to our sustaining academic excellence into the future.  Todd and Susan have many happy memories of their years spent in Bloomington.  In founding Osage Healthcare, Inc. and Pomifera LLC, Todd has truly remembered what got him there, has been true to himself, and has treated those around him with dignity.  He serves as an inspiration to all our Chemistry alumni who can achieve great things if they are willing to seize opportunities when they arise.