From Chapter 10: The Tomato That Ate Calgene
Calgene could have been a tidy little research operation, and it might even have made money. It had a fine scientific reputation, and partners with deep pockets, from Procter & Gamble to Rhone-Poulenc, the French chemical giant. Its researchers could have continued probing the mysteries of DNA from the comfort of their small box of a building along 5th Street, in the well-scrubbed university town of Davis, California. But that wouldnít have been grand enough. "We wouldnít have been Calgene," says Vic Knauf, one of the companyís first scientists. Calgene was supposed to be a force of revolutionary change within the most traditional and backward of industries. It intended to follow in the steps of Apple Computer, or Genentech, companies that turned ideas into industries.
Calgene sometimes seemed like a playground masquerading as a company. Its laboratories churned with ribald humor, loud arguments, and occasionally, startling discoveries. "We had a rule; anything the companyís science board said was bullshit, we went ahead and worked on," says Dave Stalker, one of the companyís more wild-eyed scientists. There were dreams of Calgene subsidiaries all over the world. Stalker liked the idea of one in Italy, named Calgenitalia. Luca Comai, perhaps the most creative of the lot, once flew to Lyon for a consultation with top executives from Rhone-Poulenc, and spent the meeting drawing exquisitely scatological caricatures of their solemn Gallic faces. Calgeneís other representative at the meeting, blessed with a view of Comaiís doodling pad, had to resort to frequent bathroom breaks to relieve her aching sides.
Driving things forward with restless energy, and scant attention to inconvenient details, was Roger Salquist, a charismatic former submarine commander in the US Navy. Salquist yelled and cursed, but he also inspired. "Youíd sit there and listen to him, and heíd convince you to take the hill, right?" says Andrew Baum, Calgeneís first employee, who lasted until the bitter, tumultuous end. "And sometimes the hill you were supposed take was full of machine guns, but he convinced you it was the right thing to do." Salquist had the same effect on investors. "He was so charismatic that people would just give him their money," says one Calgene scientist. "He could show you how we were going to replace entire industries with plants, and he could spin that story for investment bankers."
Salquist had a fine story to tell Wall Street. Calgene may have had the most productive group of scientists in the industry. Theyíd ventured fearlessly into the lair of the industry giant, Monsanto, and emerged with key patents on Monsantoís own specialty, Roundup-resistant plants. Theyíd discovered a gene that makes plants resistant to another herbicide, bromoxinil; and their scientific tour de force was the invention of ways to alter the oils that many plants store in their seeds. Canola plants, for instance, could be engineered to produce the kind of oil found in coconuts. (After P&G proved uninterested in pursuing the technology, Calgeneís researchers divined the truth: P&G just wanted a weapon in its back pocket against Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, who was organizing a coconut cartel and threatening to jack up prices.)
But those were not the stories that made investorsí mouths water, or convinced them to reach for their checkbooks. The story that worked, for Roger Salquist and for Calgene, was of a discovery that would solve every vegetable shopperís pet peeve, and turn Calgene into a jolly green gene giant. It was the story of red, ripe, tomatoes in wintry Chicago.