Corrections or additions?
Author: Barbara Figge Fox. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
January 19, 2000. All rights reserved.
Making Hay with a Botanical Fountain of Youth
In 1997 three Princeton undergraduates stumbled on
a great idea — the botanical equivalent to a Fountain of Youth.
The idea, the gene-based theory of a Canadian scientist, promised
to change the way fruits and flowers are grown and distributed.
could last as long as apples. Fresh tomatoes could be frozen like
corn. Carnations could stay fresh for weeks instead of days. The
saw a better world — and a business opportunity.
As the story goes, Phillip O. Escaravage (a Princeton University
major in the Class of 1997) brought Sascha Fedyszyn (an ecology and
evolutionary biology major) and Christian Ahrens (a world-class
and history major) to visit Escaravage’s brother, then doing
work at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. They were introduced
to John E. Thompson, dean of science, at the moment that he was
his success in identifying the gene that controls the mechanics of
plant life and death.
Thompson needed initial monies of $100,000 to develop his idea. The
three Princeton students were so enthusiastic that, even before they
graduated, they founded a company, and Thompson got the money he
Meanwhile, during spring break, Escaravage married his classmate,
Charlotte Forbes, the daughter of Christopher "Kip" Forbes,
vice chairman of Forbes Inc. And after graduation he and his cohorts
set up shop in the Sword building on Chambers Street. The company,
Senesco, officially began in July, 1998. Already the founders have
had to swallow the bitter pill that eventually comes to many
— they have stepped aside to bring in "old guys,"
executives who can take the company to the next level.
For Senesco, money and its accouterments — power and know how
— are not in short supply. But the company still faces
challenges. It needs to raise $1.2 million in the near term and plans
to be at least a $25 million company in five years
So this young company no longer has youth at the top. Ruedi Stalder,
59, is now the chairman and CEO; he is the former CEO of the Credit
Suisse Private Bank’s Americas Region. Steven Katz, co-founder of
S.K.Y. Polymers at 5 Crescent Avenue, Rocky Hill, is president, COO,
and treasurer. One Princeton alumnus, Ahrens, has left the firm.
remains as a board member and vice chairman, and Fedyszyn also keeps
his job of vice president.
The other board members are Christopher Forbes and Thomas C. Quick,
president and COO of the discount brokerage firm Quick & Reilly/Fleet
"With the technology developed and the concept proven, we will
be negotiating licenses with major companies. But we want Phillip
and Sascha to continue to be involved in the company, hopefully
the team without losing any of the initiative and spirit that created
the company in the first place," says Stalder. He had been
to Escaravage by the Forbes family, and he is the godfather of
Escaravage professes that this change was part of Senesco’s long term
strategy. "I am still going to be involved, but not with the banks
and the public," he says. "Reudi has the skill to do that.
This is a definitely not a young business. I expected it would have
to evolve from being just me to having people with the skill sets
to take a $30 million company to $100 million."
The founder lays out the market opportunity: If farmers, distributors,
and retailers had had Senesco-designed fruits and vegetables this
year, they would have saved $18 billion. "We are really trying
to build the company. This technology is unbelievably great and
and it will kick us off into being a strong agro player."
In October, 1998, the company obtained various bridge loans, and in
January, 1999, the company went public by means of a reverse merger
with a shell company, Nava Leisure USA. It began trading as SENO on
the NASD OTC (over the counter) bulletin board. Christopher Forbes
has been buying lots of shares.
Thompson is also a big stockholder. Thompson claims to have identified
not one, but two genes that — if silenced — could delay the
plant aging (senescence) process. Lipase was the first gene, and last
November he announced his conclusions regarding the second gene,
synthase (DHS): "The DHS regulates the timeframe within which
plant tissue ages or spoils, while the lipase executes the physical
changes involved in senescence."
Thompson is focusing on four groups of consumer products — fruits,
vegetables, flowers, and agronomic crops — and is trying to
and characterize the lipase gene in examples from each category. To
show that the concept works he is working to create a transgenic model
from each category: bananas, tomatoes, carnations, and Arabidopsis
plants (a standard crop used for research). He then plans to work
on such other crops as corn, lettuce, and strawberries.
Thompson declines to disclose exactly which gene he is studying, but
those in the business believe that he is using antisense technology
to suppress the genes. An antisense lipase gene could sabotage the
normal production of the lipase protein by inhibiting a gene that
"From what I have heard, the suppression of the lipase gene by
antisense technology apparently worked quite well to delay senescence
in several different plant species," says Eric Lam, an associate
professor at Cook College’s Biotech Center. Lam, who is studying
and other kinds of cell death in plants, points out that Thompson’s
work has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal but "is
promising as an additional tool to prolong shelf-life of plants."
Lam notes several other genes are also under study for their potential
to delay aging. "One is a gene that can inhibit the sensitivity
of plants to the hormone ethylene, and the other one is a gene that
produces cytokinin in senescing cells. It is not clear at this point
if the lipase-antisense strategy will work better than these other
approaches," he says.
No matter how Thompson’s original hypothesis fares, Senesco needs
to keep coming up with new discoveries. It dug deep into its wallet
to hire Alan B. Bennett, former associate dean of the College of
and Environmental Sciences at the University of California at Davis.
Bennett resigned his administrative duties and divides his time
teaching and looking for new research projects for Senesco. Bennett
has been actively working for the company since last summer. As
puts it, "We are not with our pants down."
Also on the scientific advisory board are Carl Leopold, an emeritus
professor at Cornell’s Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research,
and William R. Woodson, associate dean of agriculture and director
of agricultural research programs at Purdue.
"Our goal is to implement a technology that effects an 800 percent
increase in the life of a crop. We have the first player
says Escaravage. To keep that advantage he puts ads in trade
and "a national magazine." That magazine is Forbes.
Escaravage pulls no punches about a family connection that can yield
free two-page ads in a major business publication. "Do I have
an advantage? Yes."
"Do I use every advantage for my company? Yes."
Escaravage plays his family cards closer to his vest than do his more
flamboyant in-laws — he will say only that his father was an
and his mother an artist — but he has the easy confidence that
is not intimidated by wealth. After the family-only wedding at the
Forbes ranch in Colorado, there was a reception in Far Hills for 500
people and another party in Germany, Charlotte’s mother’s birthplace.
They live at the Far Hills estate of the late Malcolm Forbes
grandfather) and have two preschool children. Escaravage reads
and refuses to have a television set in his house because "it
ruins the balance of a room."
Escaravage went to boarding school in Nova Scotia, and at some point
determined that despite the encouragement of his mother, he would
never be an artist. "I did enough of it to see how difficult it
is, but I have no ability," says Escaravage. "You know how
some artists claim that God speaks to them and guides their hand.
God spoke to me and said `Don’t paint.’"
"I am probably fairly conservative about things, except for art,
and art itself is a liberal expression," he says. "Art should
move you but constantly being in shock — that is not the only
emotion you want to feel. A painting has to be judged by one, the
skill, and second, the subject."
His artistic tastes are reflected in Senesco’s office in the Sword
building on Chambers Street. It is far from usual. It sports an array
of paintings from his contemporary American collection. Several
paintings have been removed (the Amazon-like school girls battling
clowns were too controversial) but the big yellow duck’s head remains.
Escaravage’s conference table, crafted by Reeve Schley, a cousin of
Governor Christie Whitman, features tree branches sticking up through
the chairs. Everything here exudes energy.
Including Escaravage. In May his firm made a joint venture with an
Israeli company, Rahan Meristem Ltd., to develop genetically altered
banana plants. Also that month it made a private placement of common
stock that netted $2 million. In October it announced that the delayed
senescence technology worked on the Arabidopsis plant. A two for one
stock split became effective on October 25. The DHS gene patent was
announced in November, and the first annual meeting was November 30
at Jasna Polana. All the research is contracted out, most to the
of Waterloo. Big companies can be expected to develop the technology
to bring the produce to market. "That’s the beauty of our
Escaravage says. "We are going to do test plants. It will cost
us $20,000 to transform each plant, but we are not the end person
to sell the seeds. Companies like Novartis will implement the gene
into a whole new line. It may cost them $25 million, but it will be
The lipase technology can reap excellent profits for its investors,
says Escaravage. "I think we can get one to five percent royalty
for every crop. Lipase is extraordinarily valuable."
Senesco hopes to avoid the controversy about genetically modified
(g.m.) crops because Thompson is using both conventional breeding
and molecular genetic modification tools. It won’t be under pressure
to "feed the hungry," so to speak, because it is working on
high margin crops, not staples for third world countries. "The
third world will get the seeds somehow. We are selling exclusivity,
not feeding the world," Escaravage says.
"With the genes actually working, we are over a lot of the
says Escaravage. "The greater ambition is to turn these two pieces
of technology to become a greater company. That is the greatest
— we have to keep moving. We know the plant works. Someone will
purchase it. The real question is, what’s next?"
Princeton 08540. Ruedi Stalder, chairman and CEO. 609-252-0680; fax,
609-252-0049. Home page: http://www.senesco.com.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.