Fighting Poaching with Offbeat Solutions from Silicon Valley Startup Pembient

Matthew Markus is the CEO and Co-founder behind the new company Pembient that’s using biotechnology to create an unorthodox approach to fight poaching. He’s just part of a larger “biotech startup movement” in Silicon Valley aiming to solve everyday problems. I recently interviewed Matthew to find out what Pembient’s story can teach us about using offbeat ideas to both launch a company and tackle global issues through innovation.

Listen the interview on SoundCloud:

The Wildlife Poaching Crisis in Africa

Mark Twain once said, “Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute.” It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. Every day platforms like the National Geographic highlight the atrocities faced by endangered species throughout Africa and Asia including lions, elephants, rhinos, and tigers. Most recently, a trophy “hunter” paid $350,000 for a permit to kill a black rhino in Namibia. There are an estimated 5,055 remaining in the wild. The black rhino ranks as one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Outside of trophy hunting the biggest issue continues to be poaching.

Infographic featuring Black Rhino Facts Source: CNN
The black rhinos are native to eastern and central Africa including Kenya, Tanzania, and Cameroon | Source: Save the Rhino

South Africa within the last four months of 2015 has had nearly 400 rhinos slaughtered for their horns. This is an 18 percent increase in comparison to the same period in the previous year. Since 2011, statistical data has shown an increasing trend to kill rhinos for their horns, with the number of deaths more than doubling by the end of 2013 (1,004). But there is some good news. Park officials in South Africa have highlighted an increase of 40 more arrests of poachers when compared to the April 2014 period. Across countries like Kenya, Cameroon, and others, over 100,000 elephants had been slaughtered for their ivory tusks in just three years (2010 to 2012). In 1979, the elephant population across the continent was approximately 1.1 million. In just under three decades, we’ve managed to reduce that population to a range that falls between 472,000 and 690,000 elephants (the IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group). This is as a result of poaching and other human conflicts over living space, food and other economic resources.

In April 2015, Thai Custom Officials had success after uncovering and seizing three tons of illegal ivory (511 elephant tusks worth $6 million) smuggled in bags of tea from Kenya. The ivory was destined for Laos and eventually to buyers in China, Vietnam and Thailand. The previous week they seized four tons of ivory, this time from Congo. What would make a country go so far as to smuggle the remains of elephants amongst a “traditional” consumer product like tea? Could it be a selfish or misguided attempt to preserve their cultures and traditions for future generations? Mainland China was the world’s leading tea consumption and production country in 2010 with the average person consuming 400 cups of tea every year. We’re presented with quite the moral and cultural paradox and understanding both could be the key to unlocking change.

Meet Pembient, the Biotech Company

Pembient is a new biotech company in Silicon Valley that has introduced an unconventional idea that has considered the importance of preserving and respecting people’s cultural and traditional ways of life. The company’s ambitions involve leveraging the latest developments in biotechnology to manufacture wildlife products, such as rhino horn and elephant ivory, at lower market prices than those that drive the demand in poaching. With the black market valued at around $20 billion, Pembient’s ultimate goal is to replace the illegal wildlife trade, with sustainable commerce. The company has so far developed prototypes for synthetic rhino horns using 3-D printing technology.

Pembient Co-founders George Bonaci (left) and Matthew Markus in the lab
Pembient Co-founders George Bonaci (left) and Matthew Markus in the lab | Photo credit: Pembient

A Snapshot Profile of Matthew Markus

Matthew Markus is an experienced technologist who co-founded Pembient with George Bonaci and is the biotech company’s current CEO. Markus has co-founded the startups in the mobile, genomics, and internet sectors.

Education: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Washington, St. Louis
Organisations founded: iHear Network, Mendelia, and

The Phresh Interview

Phil Rodriques (PR): What is Pembient truly passionate about?
Matthew Markus (MM): So obviously we’re really passionate about conservation, but I don’t really consider myself a conservationist. I think we’re sort of interested in, well I’m personally interested in solving complex problems and I think the poaching crisis is a complex problem. I mean you have lots of things going on. You have governments; you have black market syndicates; you have technology; you have economics; you have different languages; different cultures. I mean it’s a complex problem and I guess that is very attractive to me, because there are lots of things you need to learn, lots of things you need to understand and you have to figure out the best way you can probably have an impact on that problem. And that’s what I’m kind of passionate about I guess.

PR: Why create Pembient?
MM: Well, okay so the approaching crisis for rhino started around 2006, so that’s going on nine years ago now. It’s slowly crept up over time and if you look at the compounding annual growth rate of poaching in the last five years is like 30%. So last year was a record year, 1,215 and this year it’s unfortunate, because the government isn’t releasing figures at regular intervals like they use to do, but there are estimates at (I don’t know), maybe 580 to 390 have been killed or 360. Again it’s on track to be another record year, this year. I think we said a lot of “standard conservation techniques” have been tried and basically if you measured the results of those techniques, obviously you’d probably come to the conclusion that they’re failing. So you can measure the number of rhinos killed, you can measure the growth rate in poaching, you can measure a lot of different things. But none of these trends, none of these statistics are positive in anyway and that’s after nine years of effort. So basically I think we said well, are there other opportunities or other ways or processes that can be used here in order to basically counter the poaching and I think there are and I think basically if you look at the West with fur products, like there’s three things that go on with fur products, right: there’s effective laws and regulation governing fur products; there’s basically organisations like PETA looking to reduce the demand or consumption of real fur; and then there’s also substitute fur products, for people who still like the feel or look of fur without necessarily harming animals.

Insert caption here
From the article titled ‘100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Analysis Finds’ | Source: National Geographic

If you see that kind of repeat over and over again, we were kind of shocked that’s really sort of never used as substitute for the hard portion of the equation was not really used when it comes to these problems in Asia and we thought that’s kind of a shame. There should be a strong substitute or safety valve so that people can continue their traditions without necessarily causing ecological damage or anything else like that. That’s where Pembient comes in. We say we’re founded on the belief that animals are precious and traditions are important. In the past, talks have been animal populations are going to be decimated and traditions have to be stopped; you can tell somebody to stop maybe one tradition or one culture to stop one tradition, but if you look at Asia there’s like so many traditions that people (advocates) want stopped. They want the use of rhinoceros horns stopped. They want the use of ivory stopped. They want the use of shark fin stopped. They want the use of bear bile stopped. They want the use of manta ray stopped. They want the use of tiger bones stopped. They want… you know what I mean. It goes on and on, so at some point, I don’t think you can really just say “you need to stop all culture, traditions and practices” and really expect that to happen. It’s a hard problem.

PR: What are or have been Pembient’s milestones for/over the next 6 to 12 months that need to be achieved? How long have you guys been in operation?
MM: Yeah, we started it sort of as a project, not a company initially, just trying to gather data and learn more about the problem [poaching]. We started maybe about a year ago now, during March of last year I guess, and then we didn’t incorporate until January 2015. So there’s definitely a period of months where we were just kind of running it as a project and the milestones for that project were many. I mean we basically set out to first survey the population there (Vietnam) and try to learn how rhino horn is used and their potential acceptance of alternatives. And then based on some of that data we developed prototypes in the lab that had the same physical and chemistry properties of rhino horn. We took some of those prototypes to Vietnam. Then in Vietnam we interviewed some people who used rhino horn and got their feedback on not just the prototypes, but understanding more about their life and what they’re doing and why they’re doing their behaviours and stuff. So I would think those are all major milestones leading up to basically our acceptance into Indie.Bio (biotech accelerator in San Francisco) where I’m speaking to you from right now. So basically it’s kind of trying to prove out the science of some of the market so that we would basically have a strong case for acceptance into a biotech accelerator. And then with the accelerator we get access to another set of lab capabilities and we also got money to further our development. is the world’s first Synthetic Biology accelerator
Indie.Bio is the world’s first Synthetic Biology accelerator | Source: Indie.Bio

PR: What do you foresee as the positive implications of your bio-technology on poaching?
MM: Sure! We’re sort of part of a larger movement, so in this accelerator (IndieBio) and Silicon Valley specifically, there are several companies that basically are removing animals or eliminating society’s dependence on animals for end products. So there’s a company fermenting egg white proteins in yeast, so basically you can create a “chicken-less” egg. There’s another company that’s fermenting milk protein in yeast so you can create “milk without a cow”. So basically we view our association as an extension to that sort of a movement where we basically want to remove animals from the food and goods chain. And poaching we think or with wildlife, we think there is a great opportunity to sort of jump over because the next logical step for wildlife unfortunately is farming. There are already proposals to farm rhinos and what not, so we’re hoping the technology can do what it’s doing right now where basically companies in the United States are trying to remove animals from the factory farms, so basically you don’t eat these animals in the factory farms, we’re hoping we could just jump over that phase where you have to farm wildlife products and just jump right to the end phase which we believe is to get lab-produced animal products.

PR: Have you considered that 3D-printed horns could have negative consequences for the endangered wildlife (rhinos/elephants) that you are trying to save?
MM: I don’t know… people tell us, “Oh your idea won’t work and it’ll also increase demand” [laughs] so you know what I mean, that’s kind of a weird situation to be in where people won’t want your thing [synthetic products], but at the same time they’ll somehow want the other thing [animal products]. We don’t think… there’s a lot of historical analogies like if you look at Christmas trees – fake Christmas trees versus real Christmas trees. The introduction of fake Christmas trees did not lead to a demand in real Christmas trees; in fact the demand for real Christmas trees dropped after the introduction of fake Christmas trees [Phil laughs]. So there’s definitely a historical precedence where basically that doesn’t really occur necessarily where you basically had this knock on demand for the real thing per se. I mean we’ve studied it in some detail, we think it’s a really strange edge case that probably will not occur. We intend to build the best product we can for our clients. So hopefully at the end of the day there will be no way to distinguish us from wild product; except maybe the fact that wild product will contain pollutants, whereas we [Pembient products] won’t contain any pollutants at all, because we’re built in a quality-control lab facility. So basically we want to create the best product there that basically is a full and reliable substitute for what people currently use and we think that… we don’t really see how it’s going to necessarily inflame demand for the wild product. I mean our product is a unique offering and it’s actually better than the wild product in lot of ways.

One of Pembient's 3-D printed 'rhino horn' prototype
One of Pembient’s 3-D printed ‘rhino horn’ prototype | Photo credit: Pembient

PR: What have been some of the unexpected hurdles?
MM: Unexpected hurdles… good question. Well you know, there are always technical hurdles around creating a product itself, because basically we have to build a prototype and then we have to sort of compare it to the data that we’ve obtained from rhino horns. And then we always need to go back and see why we are not matching in some aspect or characteristic and then do some reverse engineering on the wild horn itself to figure out what we’re missing or what we need to include. So there are always those things going on. I guess on the other side we always knew that we’re challenging the orthodoxy as far as conservation is concerned. So it’s not like an unexpected hurdle per se, but obviously we have people who think we’re a breath of fresh air and that we’re shaking up the [conservation] conversation and trying to figure out new avenues for approaching this problem. While on the other hand we have people who just don’t want to hear about anything that we’re doing. So that’s a hurdle, I guess.

PR: What have been some of the unexpected successes to date?
MM: Oh well, I guess the press. [Matthew laughs] We’ve had a lot of press and that was almost too soon and too early, but it was great. We enjoyed talking to everybody and hearing other people’s opinions and getting feedback on what we’re doing. But it’s been a lot for the last week or two it’s been a lot of extra work [Matthew laughs]. So that was unexpected, but it is a positive.

PR: What aspects of Pembient’s pursuits keep you up at night? What are you most paranoid about, if anything at all?
MM: Good question too. I guess we want to enter the market in partnership with companies in Asia that maybe have used water buffalo horn or are using water buffalo horn or maybe used rhino horn in the past in their medicines or their durable goods or their other products. So basically finding those partners and basically also as part of partnership agreements, we want to basically help them with the marketing message, so that basically people understand that this is a product made in the United States. We’re kind of like… you know Brooks Brothers, right, [Phil agrees] the makers of suits and stuff like that. So there’s another company called Loro Piana, which is a wool textile-maker; so a lot of the times a Loro Piana wool will end up in a Brook Brothers suit. So we want to sort of have that brand or like Gore-Tex in like a The North Face jacket.

Another prototype finished to look closer to a rhino horn Photo credit: Pembient
Another prototype finished to look closer to a rhino horn
| Photo credit: Pembient

So we want to be like a “branded ingredient” to these other products. So we want to basically develop these partnerships that are more than just like we’re an ingredient, but that we’re in partnership with them and that we help with their marketing message and communicate the value of lab horn or Pembient horn versus the value of wild horn, which we think is much less. And so I think just establishing those partnerships and getting the marketing message and branding right with them you know obviously would keep me up at nights, because it’s a complex thing and it requires a relationship to form and it requires us to work in partnership with these people [Asian companies] effectively. It’s always difficult, especially when they’re language barriers and then there’s other things involved so I think that keeps me up at nights a little bit.

PR: How did you guys come up with the company name?
MM: [laughs] Sure. There was an article in the New York Times about naming companies and the process to do it. I guess there are consultants that make hundreds of dollars an hour naming companies. I actually found a very similar process myself, but I learned about it afterwards. Basically I just had a dictionary putting down words and then putting down suffixes for words. So “pembe” in Swahili is like horn or tusk. I think there was some elephant named Pembe in a Disney movie at some point [Matthew chuckles] and then “ient” is like “indication of” in English as a suffix. So those two words just jumped altogether in my mind at some point. So “Pembient” would mean “indication of horn or tusk” and I thought it was a pretty cool name so that’s what I went with.

Pembient's company logo is a modern minimalist design
Pembient’s company logo is a clever and modern minimalist design | Source: Pembient

PR: Who designed Pembient’s logo?
MM: [Matthew laughs] Me. [laughs again].

PR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MM: No. I just want to thank you for reaching out and thank you for posting us on your Facebook 60 words or less. [referring to ‘Do Good 365’]