The Nobel Prize-Winning Chemist Steering Google

Professor Frances Arnold brings decades of experience in renewable technology and sustainable business to the board of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

12.12.2019 | by Christy Romer
By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - Frances Arnold EM1B5928, CC BY 2.0
By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - Frances Arnold EM1B5928, CC BY 2.0

Earlier this week, Alphabet—the parent company that controls Google and all of its affiliates, including DeepMind, Sidewalk Labs, Wing and Loon—enlisted the support of a Nobel Prize winner to oversee its corporate governance. Her name? Frances Arnold. 

Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, is a scrupulous choice. She’s a tech pioneer, having engineered solar panels to work in remote locations since 1979. She’s also got a head for sustainable business: Her groundbreaking science has led to the creation of multi-million dollar companies that specialise in ecological biofuels and pesticide alternatives.

Her appointment makes her Alphabet’s third female director and follows the departure in 2018 of molecular biology professor Shirley Tilghman.


Frances Arnold

The scientist graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from Princeton University in 1979, with a focus on solar energy research. She then worked in South Korea and Brazil at the Solar Energy Research Institute, designing solar energy facilities for remote locations, before completing a PhD in chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology.

She’s been with the university in some academic capacity since 1986 and a full professor since 1996. It’s here that she made a name with her “direct evolution” process to create enzymes with improved functions—in effect speeding up natural selection with science. This process has designed enzymes that can produce renewable fuels and pharmaceutical compounds more beneficial to the environment.

In particular, Arnold evolved bacteria to create the biofuel isobutanol, and the laboratory she runs uses enzymes to convert renewable biomass to fuels and chemicals.

This directed evolution won her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018, making her only the fifth woman to win in 117 years of history. Following the award, Pope Francis named her a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.


Boon for Alphabet

Arnold’s appointment comes as Alphabet is pushing into renewable energy and life sciences—particularly through its affiliate, Verily—in an apparent attempt to rehabilitate an image tainted by concerns about collecting and using personal data.

Arnold’s business experience will also come in handy: She co-founded the company Gevo, Inc in 2005, which makes fuels and chemicals from renewable resources. The company—which has Google-style ambitions to “replace the carbon source for major packaging plastics” and power “cars, airplanes, trucks, small engines, boats and ships”—is now worth $22 million. Provivi, a company she set up in 2013 along with a couple of former students to research alternatives to pesticides for protecting crops, has raised more than $100 million.

Reuters reports that Alphabet has offered Arnold an initial equity award of $1 million through Alphabet stock.

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