Fishy Business

 

UT grad Alan Blake commercialized the world’s first genetically modified pet: a glow-in-the-dark fish. A decade later, the glow hasn’t worn off.

Walk into almost any pet store in the United States, and you’ll find a kaleidoscope of colorful fish. Among the most eye-catching are GloFish: small zebrafish and tetras in neon hues like Sunburst Orange and Galactic Purple. Under UV light, the fish emit a captivating fluorescent glow.

You’d never guess it, but they’re also tiny revolutionaries. The world’s first genetically modified pets, GloFish made front-page news when they hit stores in 2003. Naysayers called them unnatural, enthusiasts rushed to buy them, and California banned them. Today, they’re ubiquitous. Behind it all is GloFish CEO and co-founder Alan Blake, BBA ’01, who started the company just months after earning a bachelor’s in finance from UT.

“We’re at the intersection of biotechnology, aquarium fish, and politics,” Blake says. “It’s been interesting.” That would be an understatement.

“We’re at the intersection of biotechnology, aquarium fish, and politics. It’s been interesting.”

Soft-spoken and slight, Blake seems much younger than his 35 years. He’s just gotten married—to a kindergarten teacher who uses GloFish in her classroom—and fidgets with his ring as he tells the company’s story.

Blake’s entrepreneurial bent is what brought him to UT in the first place. A native of Yorktown, New York, he followed a friend to Arlington, Texas, at age 18 in hopes of starting a landscaping business together. When that didn’t pan out (“We had exactly one customer,” he laughs), Blake took classes at UT-Arlington and found a job selling insurance. He was so good at it that the company asked him to open an office in Austin—so he transferred to UT-Austin and juggled school and work.

It was 1997, the height of the dot-com bubble, and startups were everywhere.  “You could drive down South Congress, toss your résumé out the window, and have five messages waiting from employers when you got home,” Blake says. “It was an incredible time to be in Austin.”

After his junior year, Blake took time off to start ClassMap, a Blackboard-like classroom software competitor. The company grew to 50 employees, $4 million in venture capital, and customers at 75 colleges. After two years, it went under.

Blake wasn’t dismayed. He returned to school, finding himself in the odd position of taking classes like Marketing 101 after having already been a CEO. Then he got a call from an old friend, Richard Crockett.

A Yale biology grad, Crockett told Blake about some fascinating research. Scientists at the National University of Singapore had engineered fluorescent zebrafish by splicing a bit of jellyfish or sea anemone DNA into fish embryos. Their eventual goal was to create fish that would glow in the presence of toxins, signaling a polluted river, but Crockett and Blake saw a commercial use: glow-in-the-dark pets. So the duo got to work licensing the technology, securing funding, and wading through legal red tape. “I was too naïve to know how hard it would be, and too stubborn to quit,” Blake says.

UT’s John Butler, now director of the University’s entrepreneur-focused IC2 Institute, and former UT chancellor Bill Cunningham were the company’s first investors.  After two years of preparation, GloFish sales began in 2003.

It wasn’t long before the press caught wind of the story—a ready-made headline for its mix of entrepreneurial flair, innovative technology, and playing-God controversy. “The genetically modified pet appears to have arrived,” proclaimed the New York Times. The debate over genetic modification, previously focused on food, had reached the fishtank. “For me it’s a question of values,” then-California Food and Game Commissioner Sam Schuchat told the Associated Press. “I think selling genetically modified fish as pets is wrong.” GloFish are still banned in California, where critics fear the fish could breed in nature, affecting wild populations.

Blake says the tropical fish can’t live in the wild, and he calls the controversy manufactured. “I like to say that there were more reports of Elvis flying a UFO over Los Angeles than there are negative comments we got in a year,” he says. “The press created the debate.”

With Crockett busy in medical school, Blake was working overtime to manage the company. He did hundreds of interviews from his North Austin apartment, “just trying to keep up,” he says. But eventually the frenzy died down, and sales kept growing. GloFish now come in three species and five colors. There are also more than 40 GloFish products, including aquarium plants and gravel.

Today, Blake visits UT business classes to speak with aspiring entrepreneurs. His advice? “Don’t do it for the money,” he urges. “It’s a lot easier to succeed by working for someone else than for yourself. But if you are willing to make the sacrifices, you can do great things.”

Photos from top: Electric Green GloFish; Alan Blake (courtesy Alan Blake).

 

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