Terramera’s Annett Rozek has seen the impossible, and now she’s doing it
Inside her remarkable journey from East Berlin to B.C. and beyond.
Back when Annett Rozek was studying at East Berlin’s Humboldt University, she dreamt of living in Canada. It was the late ‘80s and she was antsy. “The world is open, what am I doing here?” she recalls thinking in the latter years of her studies. She completed a Master's degree in chemistry in 1990 with ease, but a year earlier her world was flipped upside down. And if you know your history, you know what’s coming next.
Construction on the Berlin Wall started in 1961. Its destruction began November 9, 1989, the fall before Rozek graduated. “And everything changed,” she remembers. While the fall of the Wall signalled the collapse of communism in eastern and central Europe, for Rozek, it had personal meaning. It meant more travel and adventure and the opening up of a new world of opportunity. It was a piece of the springboard that propelled her to Canada.
Anything is possible
Rozek landed in British Columbia in 1993. She’s now chief science officer at Vancouver-based Terramera and helps lead a team that fuses science, nature and artificial intelligence to transform how food is grown.
One of her company’s major objectives is to reduce global synthetic pesticide use by 80 percent by 2030 to protect plant and human health. It’s an ambitious goal—a moonshot, some would say—but Rozek doesn’t really believe in moonshots, or more specifically, the prospect that things can’t be done.
“When that wall came down, from one day to the next, I just changed what I thought was possible. The word impossible essentially disappeared from my vocabulary. Because whatever might seem impossible [now]...I’ve been there before, saw it just vanish and dissolve. Now I will never tell myself that anything is impossible,” she says.
From academia to industry
Rozek considered both the U.K. and the U.S. for her move out of Germany and as the next place to continue her studies. She chose Canada for a number of reasons.
She says Germans have a special fondness for Canada’s wilderness, in particular the west coast. “I did not spend a thought on Eastern Canada at all,” she laughs. “It was the natural beauty of western Canada that attracted me—the wilderness and the freedom.” She also perceived Canada as having a much kinder culture than its neighbours to the south. “The U.S. came across as very competitive. The reports that people that had spent some time there brought back said, ‘Oh, it's just crazy. People work 16 hours a day and they get pitched against one another.’ I didn't want that. So I selected what I felt was the kinder structure and culture and I applied to four universities in western Canada and SFU was the first one that responded, so I was like, ‘I’ll take it.’”
At SFU, Rozek’s PhD studies focused on protein structure analysis. A major milestone for her and the field generally came when she was the first to determine the structure of apolipoprotein C-I, a major protein that she explains is known to be misregulated in heart disease.
“It was one of the smaller [proteins], which was lucky because you know, the field just started. So the smaller ones were still accessible. Nowadays, if you want to get credit for solving a whole structure, you have to go through hundreds of amino acids and big proteins—it’s much more complicated. But on the other hand, you have very sophisticated methods and computation available today,” she explains.
At SFU, her academic accomplishments were honourable; however, Rozek wanted to be closer to industry to see the science she was discovering applied in the real world. “What I realized in the last part of my PhD program is that in academia, you work to produce papers. And that just was not enough for me. Publications are nice, but it's not satisfying for me. I really want to change people's lives.”
Her interest in life sciences led her to join the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UBC to work with microbiologist Robert E. W. Hancock (“he’s still famous”). From there, she worked as a senior scientist at Inimex Pharmaceuticals, leading the research and development team. Then she discovered Terramera.
Taking the next steps
Terramera is the perfect place for a person of Rozek’s professional genealogy. It’s unconventional, boundary-pushing, perhaps even unreasonable in its aspirations—except to those who work there, people like Rozek and the company’s enterprising founder and CEO, Karn Manhas.
From the first meeting, Rozek immediately wanted in. “I was sold on the energy and dedication that [Manhas] brought to what he's doing,” she recalls. “So that conviction was really important to me. I knew Karn wouldn't let go of what he decided to do. He keeps going after it, and oh boy, does he ever. That is inspiring me to this very day.”
To demonstrate the Terramera way of thinking, Rozek simulates a fictional interview loosely based on her own experience joining the firm. It goes like this: Manhas asks her what she wants the world to look like in the future. “I wish we didn’t have a climate change problem,” she replies. Manhas’s response, as she tells it, is along the lines of: “‘Well, then what can we do about it? We’ll just pull all the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and we’ll put it into the soil where it does a lot of good things for plants and for growing food.’” Most people would say that’s impossible, Rozek says. “Like, ‘You can’t reverse that.’ And we say, ‘Don’t say impossible.’” (And this isn’t just talk. Terramera is actually working on storing carbon underground to improve soil health, a process called regenerative agriculture.)
Rozek adds, “We just think of the next steps we could do to get there. Then we just keep doing steps after those steps. We love to surprise ourselves in some sense. And we have made that happen in the past continuously.”
Great minds do not think alike
The innovation at Terramera is not a fluke. One of the firm’s unique properties is its fusion of engineering and science together on its R&D team, Rozek explains. It’s an arrangement that relies on the partnership of Rozek and chief technology officer Travis Good, who joined in 2017.
Not everyone was sold on the setup initially. “People warned me and said, ‘You know that there will be war. People will hate each other.’ Because engineers and scientists think very differently. They have different training, and they're in these different areas because they prefer thinking in different ways,” Rozek says.
She describes the difference like this: A scientist is more of an observing person that is very creative. They form theories out of what they see, and then test those theories. Whereas an engineer is very analytical. Terramera’s deviation from the norm is to have the science and engineering teams actively work together. “We combine them in order to create tools,” says Rozek.
“In my mind, that's perfect, because a scientist can do the testing so much better and so much faster if they have better tools, and tools that are designed exactly for the question they want to answer. So that partnership between an engineer and a scientist is actually really powerful.”
It’s also nothing new for her. In fact, she had a bit of a clue that the union of differing thinking styles would work out because her husband is an engineer. “And you know, we work very well together,” she maintains. Plus, the data backs the claim up. She’s got nearly 30 years of marriage and two daughters as evidence. Rozek and her spouse came to Canada in January of 1993, got married on February 17 of that year and then 28 years later on February 18, 2021, they became Canadian citizens. “It's quite a story, isn't it?” Rozek realizes.
It’s (not) just a dream
Freshly Canadian, Rozek’s 2021 winter was notable for another reason. In March, she was honoured with a YWCA Women of Distinction Award nomination. She was recognized for making a significant and sustained difference in Metro Vancouver through her pursuit of scientific, technological and research-based discoveries. From her research at SFU to the co-development of Actigate™, a product that Fast Company called a world-changing idea, Rozek is an example of what happens when you have faith in your own abilities. “Throughout my career, it has been my experience that we only achieve what we believe we can,” she said at the time. “Our beliefs about ourselves shape the opportunities we take.”
Asked to expand on those words, she says, “My experience is that the things we do and finally end up achieving–we achieve because we have already imagined that outcome in our minds. When we look at ourselves and our dreams, we often think, ‘Well, that's just a dream, and I will not get there.’”
She continues, “But the moment you switch and stop saying it’s just a dream, but that it's already reality, then you’re suddenly able to take the right steps in that direction.”
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