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The Year of Being Under 30

In June, Ian Klein ’10 found himself doing something few 27-year-olds could envision: delivering a keynote speech at a major conference for the railway industry in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It was just one of the many staggering opportunities that have come his way since the chemistry major’s name appeared on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for 2015.

“[The conference] wanted someone on their panel regarding biofuels and their use in the future,” explains Klein. “That was really exciting – that was an awesome opportunity.”

Klein is part of a team at Purdue University that turned a graduate school research effort into a commercial enterprise, Spero Energy Inc. The initiative’s primary project focuses on converting renewable biomass into high-value chemicals that are useful in the flavor and fragrance industries. The success of his business had already launched Klein into the spotlight, but making the Forbes list added rocket fuel to his trajectory.

The wild ride began when employees at the Purdue Research Foundation nominated Klein for the Forbes honor. He went through several interviews with Forbes, and was waiting to hear whether he was selected. “I saw on Facebook that someone was congratulating someone else who had made it on there, so I was thinking, ‘Well, I guess I didn’t make it, because surely they would have notified me when they posted the list’, recalls Klein. “Then I went on the website and saw my name on there.” He received an email later that day with the official notification: “It felt really great!”

The award built a sense of respect and gravitas that can be hard to earn for any entrepreneur, let alone one who hasn’t yet lived out three decades. “It’s added some degree of credibility, and people in the business community look on it very favorably,” says Klein. He believes the Forbes listing helped his team in the Burton D. Morgan Business Plan Competition at Purdue University in February. The team, under his leadership, took home first place and a $30,000 prize to use toward further research. “It’s just another validation of the work that we’ve done,” says Klein. “There are many great reasons we have been successful, but I think having [the Forbes “30 Under 30” award] up on your slides – people like to see that.”

The high-profile honor (“today’s greatest gathering of young game-changers, movers and makers … every one selected by a panel of A-list judges,” announced Forbes) has earned Klein well over the standard 15 minutes of fame. Klein had previously fielded some interview requests about his business, but after the listing, the calls came in faster. He recalls battling nerves before his first-ever live television interview at a Lafayette, Ind., television station. “I was a little nervous, but it went great,” says Klein. “When you have great news to share about an award you’ve won and the promising work going on at your company, it’s easy to talk about that and spread your message.”

Ian’s wife, Vanessa (Ashworth) Klein ’12, says her husband’s gift for public speaking has been a major factor in his success. But she also points to other qualities that have been critical components. “He is the most patient person ever,” she says. “He doesn’t ever have anything mean to say about anyone. He works well with every person, and he really loves what he does. He’s the first one there and the last one to leave.”

The couple met at St. Norbert and married in July 2014 in Vanessa’s home state of Montana. They never could have guessed that, less than a year later, Ian would be in such high demand that they would find themselves on a plane to South Africa. The conference experience was “surreal” to the newlyweds. “We’re both so young, all the people who were there were 50, 60, 70-year-olds, many of them CEOs,” Vanessa explains. “Seeing Ian’s picture there as a keynote speaker from Spero Energy – I felt like we were not in our element! These guys are very credible. They’ve had very long careers, and Ian, who is brand new, is getting so much attention and opportunities.

”The couple has enjoyed seeing all the print and web articles touting Ian’s accomplishments, including a front page article in his hometown newspaper, the Stevens Point Journal. Ian says his proud grandparents in De Pere love to share that with their friends.

Klein’s academic peers have also showered him with much-appreciated accolades. “The article was featured on the St. Norbert College homepage, and also on the Purdue chemistry homepage,” Klein says. “The head of the chemistry department sent out an email to the entire department letting them know and congratulating me. It’s always very exciting to get acknowledgement from your peers and people in your field.”

Although the initial explosion of congratulatory messages about the award has passed, Klein still faces plenty of heckling from friends and colleagues. They affectionately refer to him as “Mr. 30-Under-30.” “People want to talk about it and hear about it,” says Vanessa. “He gets a lot of attention from people at work. People he doesn’t know well will say, ‘Hey, can I have your autograph?’ ”

Momentum continues to build for Klein and Spero. The company has received a two-year Phase II SBIR grant from the Department of Energy totaling $1 million. It will help them advance and commercialize their technology. Spero has also received Phase I SBIR grants from the DOE and the National Science Foundation, and received a $50,000 grant from Elevate Ventures, a partner of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.

His advice for other young professionals: “Find something you have a passion for, because if you love what you’re doing, it’s much easier.” It’s a model that has worked for Klein. He lights up when he talks about his work in biofuel and renewable energy – a field that clearly fuels his own passion and ambition. As he says, “It’s very exciting to be able to take your science out of the lab and share it with the world and have a positive impact.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have some great opportunities. I think my education at St. Norbert College was a huge factor in all of this. I was able to get research experience in the chemistry lab right after my freshman year, which is rare. I was able to use that valuable, hands-on experience in my graduate studies.”

Vanessa Klein says she feels as though they have only just begun to understand how Ian’s success, and the Forbes honor, will continue to change their lives. “It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been an adventure, and something neither of us ever expected,” she admits. “We know it’s just the beginning, and we’re excited.”

Oct. 31, 2015