Tyler Smith, vice president of research and development at Rivertop Renewables, a chemical company in Missoula, was just about to fly to Amsterdam to speak at a major chemical conference last year when he noticed a strange lump on his abdomen.
“I kind of wish now I’d waited a week until after I went to Europe,” he jokes now. His life for the next year was about to drastically change.
It turned out to be stage 3 cancer that had spread to a large portion of his body. Needless to say, the trip was canceled. Smith and his wife, state legislator Ellie Boldman-Hill Smith, have three young children, and it was a scary revelation.
He had to undergo nine weeks of chemotherapy and a major surgery in Seattle.
“It was a crazy time,” he recalls. “Those days of chemotherapy were like six hours where they drip stuff into you. So that was an intense period.”
The surgery had to be performed by a specialist who made an 18-inch incision in his abdomen.
“They literally take your guts out and set it aside and cut stuff out and then put you back together,” Smith recalled.
July 7 will mark the one-year anniversary of doctors telling the 37-year-old that the cancer is in remission. He said his family handled the situation remarkably well.
“You’re really focused on surviving,” he said. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to get through to the next day. And I’m still focusing on the processing part. Survival’s first. And then we’ll start processing what it all means. But it was hard on the kids.”
He said he learned from the experience that people are both fragile and resilient.
“One little DNA glitch can trigger this whole cancer proliferation throughout your body, and it can happen to anybody,” Smith said. “We don’t understand very well why. And then the treatment is they’re going to basically give you the most toxic things they can think of that kill cells very quickly, and we’re going to hope that the cancer cells are going faster than your other cells, and we’re going to target the cancer, but there’s collateral damage.”
He realized that not only was his body very resilient, but his kids were mentally resilient to be able to handle their father getting that sick.
He also remembers that when he was at the St. Patrick Hospital getting treatment, everyone declined to sit in private rooms and gathered in a group space.
“Everyone’s grumpy, hungry and sick, but nobody goes into those private rooms,” he recalled. “Everyone wanted to sit out and talk to each other. There’s people with all types of cancer in all different phases of their life. Some probably aren’t going to make it much longer. And it really is a remarkable group of people, kind of how upbeat they are. I don’t know if gallows humor is the right word, but people are kind of making light of the situation and joking.”
Smith said it was a bonding experience with strangers that will last his entire life.
“I made some good connections with people and some friendships that will last,” he said.
With his head bald from the chemotherapy, he even agreed to be the guest speaker before last year’s Relay for Life event in Missoula, right before his surgery.
“This role generally inspires others who are battling cancer and the fight of their life,” explained Linda Baumann, who helped organize the event. “Tyler, along with his wife and children, brought the crowd to tears, laughter and cheers. Not only was Tyler inspiring with his honesty, he was sincerely grateful for the opportunity to be an important part of the lives of others."
Baumann said Smith and his family led the first lap of the 12-hour walk around Big Sky High School track, all while strangers, newfound friends and admirers hugged him and shook his hand for having the courage to share his fight.
"I will always remember how Tyler inspired me, shortly after losing my own husband and sister-in-law, to live my life stronger and with more compassion for others," she recalled.
It was a random pit stop on the Interstate on his way to tour the University of Oregon in Eugene that led Smith to discover Missoula. He grew up in Mississippi and attended graduate school at the University of Texas, but he realized he wanted to focus on environmentally friendly chemistry instead of trying to come up with the next Viagra pill.
“What really attracted me to this grad program here was everybody was doing something really out of the box,” he said of the University of Montana. “It was really applied chemistry, and everybody was working on solving some environmental problem.”
After receiving his doctorate in organic chemistry from UM in 2008, Smith helped launch Rivertop Renewables, which specializes in renewable, environmentally friendly chemicals and processes. The company has experienced rapid growth after patenting a process that efficiently uses oxygen to create glucaric acid out of corn sugar. The end product is used in everything from road-deicing salts to prevent corrosion to dishwasher detergent to prevent hard water stains.
“Our chemical is used as an alternative to phosphate,” Smith explained. “Phosphate gets discharged from wastewater treatment plants into waterways, and it causes algae blooms, which sucks oxygen out of the water and kills fish.”
The company started with five employees and now has 32, including 17 research scientists.
“The company is still driven by research and development,” Smith explained. “We help the engineering team as they scale up this chemistry. We help the business side collect data and learn new attributes of our chemistry to help the marketing and sales team. We’re also doing some novel and exploratory research to find new ways to use our products and core chemistry.”
With a new perspective on life after his brush with cancer, Smith is headed in May to give a presentation on green chemicals to the American Oil Chemists Society. He believes Rivertop Renewables is poised for even more success in the future.
"We’re very optimistic and excited,” he said.