Jesse Lou (MBA 2022) reflects on his decision to come to HBS, what motivates him to make a difference in the world by using technology to build a more sustainable food system, and how he has utilized resources at HBS to make this happen.

Tell me about what you were doing before HBS and what brought you to HBS.

In 2018, I started reflecting on the big existential question of ‘what is my calling?’ It was really intimidating to think about – my main criteria were to work on problems that mattered to me, that I could have fun doing, while having a positive impact on the world.

At the time, I was living in San Francisco working at a data science startup as a product manager. I have always gravitated toward technology and science throughout my life, and machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data science were fascinating as the next frontier of innovation. At the same time, I spent a lot of time by the water in the San Francisco Bay Area. I would catch and forage fish, crab, mussels, and sea urchin, and bring them home to eat! It was really magical (and delicious) to be able to interact with nature in such a way. Against the backdrop of accelerating climate change, it became harder to reconcile how my personal & professional experiences were contributing to this existential crisis.

After much reflection, I decided that I wanted to apply cutting-edge technology to solve challenges in food (and seafood), especially as it relates to sustainably feeding the world. Through internships in venture capital and at an ag-tech startup before school, I saw how unsuccessful commercialization was often a key barrier to large-scale deployments of new scientific discoveries and innovations in food-tech, ag-tech, and biotech. Reflecting on my background, I believed I was best positioned to drive innovations in business models and strategies, and bring new, world-changing technologies to market. I came to HBS to get exposure to people from different backgrounds and have time & space to identify an opportunity to join or build a company that I could dedicate my time and energies toward.

This year you’ll be co-president of the Food, Agriculture, and Water Club. What motivated you to pursue this role? What goals do you have as co-president?

I think to the broader HBS population, careers today in food and agriculture seem niche. My biggest goal is to get more people excited (and empowered!) to solve climate challenges, whether as a career or in their personal lives. We’re broadening our reach this year by partnering with the Energy & Environment Club and the Sustainability Club to host a joint conference in November, with the goal of introducing folks to the many common ties between fighting climate change, energy, and food production. My other (more personal) goal is to create real friendships among club members, beyond it being a professionally oriented club, through small group dinners and cross-school events.

Tell me about the startup that you co-founded this summer.

PicoGreens is engineering single-celled algae (microalgae) to use as “crop plants” that sustainably produce foods and food ingredients. Instead of growing entire sugarcane stalks just to harvest their sugar, we can grow microalgae to produce ingredients like sugars or vegetable oils, using a lot less land and resources. It’s no secret that these are powerful organisms, but past attempts to scale production have faced challenging unit economics (high up-front capital costs for facilities, selling into commodity markets). We believe that through advanced genetic engineering, we can not only make these microalgae orders of magnitude faster growing and more resource efficient than traditional crops[i], but also expand the range of materials and products these microalgae can produce[ii][iii], improving profitability as a result. Further, by shifting to this new mode of production, we can also reduce the amount of forests and grasslands that are cleared for traditional agriculture (and avoid releasing tons of carbon into the air), protecting our world’s carbon sequestration potential.[iv]

What opportunities did you see that made you decide to launch this company?

Using microbes to produce foods is nothing new -- however, using microbes to replace commodity crops and serve as a pillar in our food production system is fairly uncharted waters. My partner Max is a Technology Development Fellow and postdoc at the Wyss Institute at Harvard, and has pioneered new high-throughput genome engineering capabilities[v] that enable dramatically faster genetic innovation. Coupled with the discovery of extremely fast-growing photosynthetic microalgae and racing against a worsening climate outlook, we’re full steam ahead on getting PicoGreens off the ground.

The most important next step for us is finding strong product market fit – among all the different capabilities we can engineer within our microalgae, which ones are most important? And to whom is it important? If you’re reading this and have ideas, or are interested in learning more, please reach out!!

What resources have been most helpful to you on your startup journey?

I met my partner/co-founder Max through the Harvard and MIT Program Nucleate Eco, which set the stage for our startup journey. The program helped lay the groundwork for how we should build the business, and introduced us to many supportive mentors, investors in the Boston area (including my current Entrepreneurial Finance professor, Jim Matheson!), and fellow entrepreneurs passionate about addressing climate challenges.

I’m also really thankful to my sectionmate Shardule Shah who referred me to the program, and all of the folks involved in making it happen!

Our time at Nucleate enabled me to have a platform to explore during the summer as a Rock Summer Fellow, and later this semester as a member of the Rock Accelerator Cohort, both incredible programs that not only build a sense of community among founders, but also provide mentorship and learnings in the early days of company building. I’m also cross-registered at MIT this semester in 15.366 Climate and Energy Ventures, a project-based class designed to bring cross-disciplinary folks together to work on climate-focused startups.

What do you see as the greatest opportunity at HBS for confronting environmental challenges like climate change?

It’s increasingly evident that challenges in food, climate, and society are inextricably linked, disproportionately impacting those on the fringes and in poverty, and worsening over time. HBS should continue to and expand efforts to motivate and encourage its students to join the fight by bringing more of these challenges to the forefront in the classroom and making careers in these spaces more accessible and practical. As students, the greatest opportunity for us is to talk to those with first-hand experience in relevant industries – whether contributors to or mitigators of climate change, to learn more about what we can do to make a difference.

How do plan to use your career and experience at HBS to help create a more sustainable world?

I’m excited about what the future of food looks like, especially in approaches that combine data science, biotechnology, and sustainability. If PicoGreens succeeds at scaling sustainable unit economics for microalgae as a production platform, this would have a staggering impact on many traditional means of producing food, ushering in whole new ways of producing more sustainable and climate resilient foods and biomaterials!


[i] A. Tzachor, “The Future of Feed: Integrating Technologies to Decouple Feed Production from Environmental Impacts,” Ind. Biotechnol. , vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 52–62, Apr. 2019.
[ii] M. Hannon, J. Gimpel, M. Tran, B. Rasala, and S. Mayfield, “Biofuels from algae: challenges and potential,” Biofuels, vol. 1, no. 5, pp. 763–784, Sep. 2010.
[iii] S. M. Heilmann et al., “Hydrothermal carbonization of microalgae,” Biomass Bioenergy, vol. 34, no. 6, pp. 875–882, Jun. 2010.
[iv] Zhao, C. et al. Temperature increase reduces global yields of major crops in four independent estimates. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 114, 9326–9331 (2017).
[v] “Move over CRISPR, the retrons are coming,” Apr. 30, 2021. (accessed Sep. 09, 2021).