Where are they now: Dr Derek Lacey

Where are they now: Dr Derek Lacey

Illuminate newsletter index page, March 2020
March 2020

Dr Derek Lacey

Founder and CEO, Bluestone Yeast Co.


Alum years: 2014-2017

L-R. Philippe Bouillet and Derek Lacey.
(L-R) Dr Philippe Bouillet and Dr Derek Lacey worked on
TNF production during Dr Lacey's time at the Institute.

Describe your research achievements at the Institute.

I worked on linking excess production of tumour necrosis factor (TNF), which causes rheumatoid arthritis, to the development of heart valve disease.

How did you become interested in brewing and what inspired you to start your own company?

After taking time out to look after our children, my neighbour introduced me to home brewing.  I started listening to podcasts on home brewing and heard about some guys who started a yeast company in Portland, Oregon, and thought someone should do that in Australia. Then I thought, well I have the science background, maybe I should give it a go.

Once I decided to register a company and pursue the idea, I flew to Portland and toured the yeast company. As soon as I saw the lab setup, I knew I could do it. Our niche is that we are bringing leading edge science to yeast and brewing. 

What challenges have you faced in getting the company off the ground?

There have been many and they keep coming. The first was the courage to start, putting myself and my idea out there for ridicule, with the real risk of it failing and losing our savings. The self-doubt and fear never go away and I regularly lose sleep and have stressful days or weeks, but I keep reminding myself that it needs to be tough and hard and challenging otherwise everyone would do it.

What lessons would you say to others thinking about a start-up?

You need to be prepared to fail and be semi-comfortable with risk. There are a few key lessons or things that have helped me so far. Recognise your strengths and weaknesses, and bring people on board who compliment your weaknesses or pay someone to do the jobs that you aren’t good at. For example, manufacturing is not my strong suit, but my brother is an expert. I have no marketing or branding skills, so we paid a branding/marketing start-up to help us. 

Setting up in an innovation space, you get exposed to multiple founders all experiencing the same problems as you. Nine times out of 10, they have found the solution to the problem you are facing. They help you ride the highs and lows of the start-up rollercoaster. Listen to the podcast ‘How I Built This’ with Guy Raz from NPR. You learn a lot from other people's mistakes and successes. When you make a mistake, tell someone and learn from it. 

What are you most passionate about?

I am most passionate about how science can be applied to a problem

How would you define ‘entrepreneurial spirit’? I don’t really see myself as an entrepreneur. I saw a problem and an opportunity and I wanted to make the solution to that problem a reality.

What have been the highlights?

It is hard to think of highlights when your company is less than two years old and could fail at any moment. But I guess a big highlight is having beer made with our yeast and having over 45 breweries using our yeast just six months after launching our yeast.

A personal highlight is when we go to the local pub as a family, my eldest daughter asks, “Daddy, which beer uses our yeast?” I can usually point out at least one.

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