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John Gugel
November 9, 2023

John Gugel: 2023 Distinguished Achievement Award recipient

Written By: Staff


John Gugel
BSCEE ’90, MSCEE ’92 (MBA ’08, Northwestern University)
President, Genomatica

John is a business executive in the global energy and chemicals industry who optimized construction of new plants and pioneered technology innovations that enable customers to convert natural resources into consumer products.

How did your experience in the College of Engineering influence your career path?

My interest in building things attracted me to the civil engineering department and the structural engineering program. As I entered my senior year, I found a great job with Amoco Chemical Company that provided me with an introduction to the exciting engineering challenges of the global energy and chemicals industry. A year into that career, Professor Jeff Russell recruited me back to UW-Madison to complete my master’s degree. During my research with Jeff, I worked with a company called UOP, which recruited me to join them following my thesis defense. I ended up working at that company for nearly 30 years. My friends and colleagues at UOP introduced me to my wife Jennifer—so it is clear to me that my experience in engineering not only influenced my career, but my entire life.

Which engineering professors made the greatest impact on you?

I was very fortunate to be taught by some of the most respected professors in the field, names like C.K. Wang, Chuck Salmon, Alain Peyrot, John Johnson, Steve Cramer and Michael Oliva. The one professor During my undergraduate experience, I took every course Chuck Salmon taught. In my junior and senior years, I was president of Chi Epsilon; Chuck was its longtime faculty advisor and was incredibly generous with his time and support of the organization. Erhard Joeres was my faculty advisor throughout my undergrad program; my senior year, Erhard entrusted me to be an undergraduate teaching assistant for his hydroscience course. I was really surprised how much I enjoyed teaching and working with students. During my master’s program, Jeff Russell was incredible to work with; he knocked down obstacles for his grad students, he worked with us and treated us as true team players. Jeff was always generous with allowing grad students to share meaningful work. I couldn’t imagine a better grad
school advisor.

Describe the impacts you’ve had on society as a result of your contributions.

Over the course of my career at UOP, we helped to build the energy infrastructure in several emerging countries. We provided technology and modular equipment that helped enable the U.S. shale revolution, and we provided technology and modular equipment that enabled fast-track construction of liquid natural gas export facilities in the U.S. While I was UOP’s CEO, we incubated and delivered a number of key breakthrough sustainable technology solutions including carbon capture, grid-scale energy storage, advanced chemical plastics recycling, and renewable fuels. At Genomatica, we provide technologies that reduce the carbon intensity of widely used chemicals; I serve as CEO of a joint venture that we launched with three global consumer products companies to biomanufacture large-volume chemicals that are widely used in home cleaning and personal care products. Today, these chemicals today are sourced from palm oil; our joint venture is commercializing new biotechnology that will enable the manufacture of these same chemicals from corn. Over the next 10 years, our technology aims to save more than a million acres of rainforest.

What do you like best?

Winter or summer in Madison?
Summer, for sure. I grew up there and had my share of snow. I can’t believe I still live in the upper Midwest.

Fun on the Terrace or fun on Lake Mendota?
Fun on the Terrace.

Camp Randall Stadium or the Kohl Center or the UW Fieldhouse?
Camp Randall Stadium.

Sweet Caroline or Jump Around?
Jump Around.

Bascom Hill or Observatory Hill?
I’m going to go with Bascom Hill since I had to walk up and down it so often.

State Street or Lakeshore Path?
State Street.

UW Arboretum or Picnic Point?
The Arboretum.