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Anaerobe Systems’ Mike Cox revolutionizing bio engineering

Latest project is turning vegetable matter into usable energy

WATCH THE VIDEO INTERVIEW — CLICK HERE

Published in the August 20 – September 2, 2014 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Robert Airoldi

Anaerobe Systems owner Mike Cox displays test tubes growing microbes in his Morgan Hill lab. Photo by Marty Cheek

Anaerobe Systems owner Mike Cox displays test tubes growing microbes in his Morgan Hill lab. Photo by Marty Cheek

Mike Cox already revolutionized one industry, now he’s looking for his second act.

Three decades ago, the Morgan Hill resident and owner of Anaerobe Systems invented an improved anaerobic (without oxygen) chamber that cuts the testing time for potentially lethal infections from four or more days to as little as a few hours, thus saving countless lives.

But the ever-modest Cox refuses to rest on his laurels. “Modern medical science has never saved a life,” he said, beaming a mischievous grin. “It  just changes the death date.”

It took him six years to develop the Cox Chamber in which he isolates the fastest growing living organisms, which can reproduce every nine minutes and in one day could theoretically reproduce themselves to equal the size of the Earth.

And, because of the fast rate that they can multiply their numbers, time is of the essence in testing cultures of anaerobes, he said. Now, instead of four days to get results, for most tests, the chamber cuts that time into less than a day, meaning doctors can provide faster treatment to the patient. Hundreds of hospitals, universities and dental and veterinarian labs now use his machine.

Santa Clara University is one of several facilities that use his teaching methods and machines, most of which are custom made. His patents include the gloveless anaerobic chamber, preparation of anaerobic media and anaerobic production of hydrogen and other chemical products.

Cox initially started Anaerobe Systems in 1978 in Santa Clara where he operated the company for about 10 years before moving to San Jose. In 1997, he needed to expand his operations considerably and decided to buy his own building. He came to Morgan Hill and discovered a facility on Concord Circle. He now employs 22 workers, six of whom have advanced degrees.

“It’s a perfect location and it provided area for manufacturing, research and development and our new research farm,” he said. That farm is part of Cox’s research and development on bioenergy, producing energy from biodegradable vegetable matter.

The U.S. Department of Energy declared it impossible to do cost efficiently, but Cox says it can be done.

“This will be a money-making machine,” he said. “It can be done economically.”

The company uses crop residue for bioenergy. Think about what percent of a tomato plant gets on the table, he said. It’s probably about 10 percent. The other 90 percent is sent through his bioenergy factory where the anaerobic microbes turn it into hydrogen and organic fertilizer in a faster and far more sustainable process than traditional composting.

“So being in the middle of an agricultural area is key to our bioenergy efforts,” he said of relocating the firm in Morgan Hill.

Cox now works with Chiala Farms, which once threw away about 140 to 150 tons of vegetable matter every year, to create hydrogen using the fruit waste. Their goal is to turn organic waste from food processing, cellulose and even lawn clippings into hydrogen and organic fertilizer.

Most food processing plants generate enormous amounts of waste streams and often face expensive electric bills. If these companies can take that waste stream and turn it into hydrogen, electricity can be made, thus greatly reducing or even eliminating their power bill.

He said several large firms are vying for this latest patent.

In addition to revolutionizing two industries, Cox said the wonderful thing about working and living in Morgan Hill is the quiet, small-town lifestyle with all the cultural advantages of Silicon Valley without having to put up with the hassles of Silicon Valley.

“It was one of best decisions we ever made and it’s a wonderful community,” he said. “There are a lot of bright people here and a lot of bright people in Silicon Valley who discovered this area and moved here. It’s a great place to live.”

And Cox believes that giving back to the community is vital.

“My wife Mary and I support youth leadership and in the past 10 years have been active in Leadership Morgan Hill and the AAUW’s Wildflower Run and other events,” he said. “We’re now sponsoring a concert for the South Valley Symphony and helping set up a habitat at Martin Murphy Science Magnet School.”

Cox enjoys every minute of his life in Morgan Hill but believes protecting the environment is something everyone should be a part of.

“We have a responsibility to give back to the community,” he said. “There’s a lot to be gained. My uncle told me the farmer who takes great care of his land never planned to eat dirt.”