Interview with Israel, Senior Scientist at MicroByre

Interview with Israel, Senior Scientist at MicroByre

author icon by Joseph Herndon
date icon 02.15.2023

Get to know Israel Figueroa PhD, a Senior Scientist at MicroByre. Israel shares his insights about MicroByre and the future of biomanufacturing. When he isn’t in the lab, he can be found cycling, swimming, traveling, dancing, reading science fiction, and writing poetry.

Joseph: What got you interested in microbiology as a profession?

Israel: Growing up in Puerto Rico I spent a lot of time in the ocean and I was fascinated by marine life from an early age. By the time I went off to college, there was still a part of me that wanted to become a marine biologist and so I took a job as an undergraduate research associate at a lab that studied deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems. I was on a project looking at the symbiosis between tubeworms and bacteria. They live in environments that receive no sunlight and the bacteria are actually feeding the tubeworms by building organic molecules from inorganic compounds that are seeping into the ocean from the Earth’s crust. At some point I just became so fascinated with the metabolism of these bacteria that I stopped caring about the worms. A few years later I moved to California to pursue a PhD in microbiology. Microbes have been my passion ever since

Joseph: What brought you to MicroByre?

Israel: MicroByre really appealed to me because it brought together the two parts of my scientific journey so far in a way that is rare, especially in industry. My academic work was focused on environmental microbiology and the metabolism of non-model microbes. After I finished my PhD, I decided to go into industry to do work that was more applied. I worked at a couple of biomanufacturing startups, where I gained a lot of expertise in strain engineering and fermentation with traditional industrial model organisms like E. coli and S. cerevisiae. At MicroByre, I get to draw on both skill sets to help develop non-model bacteria into industry-worthy strains that will manufacture all sorts of important chemicals and products — all while being more sustainable.

Joseph: What are you working on now?

Israel: Well, there are always dozens of different cool bacteria hanging around The Byre, but right now there are three main projects I’m working on. I can’t give too much away at this point. One of them involves magnetic bacteria, another has to do with turning organic wastes into useful sustainable products, and the other one is based on a group of poorly studied microbes that have some really unique properties that we believe will make them shine on the industrial stage.

Joseph: What are the biggest challenges in biotechnology and biomanufacturing commercialization today?

Israel: Three words that I keep hearing when people discuss biotech/biomanufacturing challenges are robustness, scale, and cost. If your strain, process, or technology is going to be commercially successful it has to be robust enough to tolerate the various stresses, issues, and curveballs that reality always throws your way; it has to scale to a sufficiently large volume that it can have a real impact in the world; and it has to be economically competitive with other incumbent or emerging technologies that achieve similar outcomes. None of these three factors are something that most people typically think of when doing basic research or early bench-scale R&D. And so you often end up with beautiful lab-scale processes that are dead in the water from a commercial standpoint. The earlier in the R&D pipeline that you start thinking about things like fermentation, downstream processing, scale-up, business outlook, and so forth, the more likely it is that you will be able to develop a technology or product that can go the distance. But it is still very difficult to achieve success because there will usually be some tough roadblocks and trade-offs. For instance, in biomanufacturing it can be very challenging to connect cheap/sustainable feedstocks to in-demand/high-margin products via a scalable and cost-competitive process; those are a lot of boxes to check.

A core aspect of MicroByre’s value is that we can address many of these issues earlier on in the R&D process by developing new microbial hosts that will have advantages down the line compared to traditional biotech hosts as well as to incumbent petrochemical processes.

Joseph: What do you enjoy most about working at MicroByre?

Israel: The people and the microbes! We have a very diverse and competent team working together to help some very diverse and competent microbes get the recognition they deserve. I think so far we’ve fostered a great work culture, as well as some great microbial cultures. I really appreciate the fact that it is a place where people’s ideas are actually listened to and that there is a willingness to provide institutional support for ideas that are promising and fit within the company’s scope. It is also really important to me that the ethos of the company is founded upon the idea of using sound science to enable more sustainable practices in industry and society.

Joseph: What are you most excited about for this year at MicroByre?

Israel: We’ve got some really exciting prospects coming down the pipeline this year! We are starting to put together some projects that are the result of the scientists and the business development team brainstorming together. We are identifying feedstocks and products that we think are worth connecting from an economic and sustainability perspective and then working to develop the microbes that we think can make those connections happen.

These projects are really trying to consider the big picture so that our scientific innovations are aligned with strong business and environmental drivers that will help create meaningful value. Oh, and we are also going to be getting some bench-scale fermentation capacity in-house in the near future, which I’m very much looking forward to!

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