PUBLISHED:December 19, 2011

Dean’s Roundtable series features alternative energy entrepreneur Harrison Dillon ’03

Harrison Dillon '03 told a small group of Duke Law students about building his alternative energy company, Solazyme, Inc., and then taking it public during a “Dean’s Roundtable” event on Nov. 10.  The event was hosted by Dean David F. Levi and Arti K. Rai, The Elvin R. Latty Professor of Law.

Dillon first developed the idea of creating oil from algae during the 1990s, while completing his PhD in human genetics at the University of Utah. While his subsequent decision to attend law school perplexed some, he said the he skills he learned at Duke Law "were some of the most useful I needed to start a company.  Writing contracts, communicating in organized and concise way and learning to write like a lawyer” were skills he “couldn't start company without,” he said.

Startup founders “have to do everything,” Dillon observed.  He personally wrote Solazyme's very first patent while still in law school, and continued to write all of the company’s patents during its first four years of operation. Even with 175 employees today, he said his duties remain diverse, ranging from high-level strategy, and coordinating with media, government, regulatory, and investor relations to managing the company's intellectual property portfolio.

Dillon encouraged the students in attendance to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations, calling starting a company a “hell of a fun ride.” He advised startup founders to maintain flexibility, by paying down personal debts and running a “lean” company, and to “change directions when something doesn't work.” He also recommended establishing business partnerships with a view to offsetting weaknesses and to adding additional capabilities.

The Dean’s Roundtable series brings distinguished alumni together with small groups of students who share similar — and often non-traditional — career goals.