This series highlights ABPDU alumni. We interview different alumni to learn more about their career paths and what makes them passionate about their work.
Stephen Hubbard joined ABPDU in 2013 as a Fermentation and Recovery Process Engineer. Today, he is a fermentation scientist and Director of Partnerships at Minds.Microbes.Molecules.Machines (4M Consulting).
Tell me about your journey of becoming a fermentation scientist.
My introduction to fermentation was with Aji Bio-Pharma, a pharmaceutical Contract Manufacturing Organization. I deeply valued the scientific rigor and attention to detail that was part of every operation there. I decided to apply those pharma skills to non-pharma biotechnology after seeing Jay Keasling explain the possibilities of biofuels and the circular bioeconomy. I thought, “Wow, this is an application of my knowledge that will allow me to maximally contribute to the world.”
At ABPDU, I had the fortunate opportunity to operate bioprocessing equipment that very few people have access to. How many engineers get to learn how to troubleshoot clogged spargers, complicated feedstocks, advanced pneumatic valve control, clean-steam generators, and novel recovery unit-ops via trial-and-error on a 300L ABEC fermenter with real client projects? How lucky I am!
In addition to the bioprocess experience, I loved the opportunity to mentor and manage junior members of the team. I am deeply grateful to folks like Robin Herbert, Priyanka Singh, Matthew Miller, Kevin Hernandez, and so many more who allowed me to teach and coach them along their biotechnology career journeys. The management philosophy that I developed with those talented young scientists is core to how I build teams now:
“New members have the opportunity and responsibility of “fresh eyes”. They’re not yet molded by the dogmatic This-Is-The-Way-We-Do-Things that can creep into a veteran’s attitude. Thus, the observations, questions, and suggestions from junior members must be encouraged and respected as they are a source of dramatic innovation and long-term growth.”
Lastly, I am very grateful that ABPDU has served so many small businesses. My exposure to a wide variety of microbes, fermentation processes, recovery strategies, partnership styles, and commercial entities has given me a unique perspective on our industry. In particular, I feel deep appreciation for having had the chance to collaborate with scientists from Visolis, Lygos, GreenLight BioSciences, Geltor, Ginkgo Bioworks, and The Every Company (not to mention all the brilliant folks at Argonne National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center).
What did you do after ABPDU?
As a fermentation engineer at Zymergen, I was fortunate to work with a wide variety of specialists (everything from data scientists, strain engineers, robotics specialists, to business development mavens and management consultants) as we built out the physical and organizational platform necessary to pursue the company’s ambitious goals. This cross-discipline work environment codified my understanding of the primacy of collaboration when taking on grand challenges. All hurdles can be overcome if only we can get intellectually diverse teams speaking the same language!
Many of my efforts at Zymergen were focused on defining, collecting, and sharing the data needed from our fermentation Testing laboratories so that Design teams could make good decisions regarding allocating Build resources and promoting strains to manufacturing scale. Connecting and accelerating the Design-Build-Test-Learn cycle is a central challenge that I’ve enjoyed focusing on throughout my career.
I joined SynBioBeta (recently rebranded to “Built With Biology”) to help create events for the biotech community during the COVID pandemic. I’ve really enjoyed connecting with such a wide range of thinkers and doers who have bolstered my belief in our field’s ability to usher-in world changing progress. Largely due to my time at SynBioBeta, I was very fortunate to have participated in gratifying collaborations with the National Science Foundation, BioMADE, East Bay Economic Development Alliance and national political campaigns. More than any work product I am proud of, I am delighted by the number of tremendous friendships I have developed in this network.
As a scientist at Pow.bio I’ve worked on a set of technologies that enable continuous fermentation mode as a viable means of bioproduction and of fermentation process development. In addition to a range of collaborations with alternative protein and bioproduct companies, I have been especially proud of work on a Department Of Energy program that demonstrates the viability of a connected “Two Chamber System.” This novel bioprocess design physically separates the growth-phase and product-formation-phases of a culture into connected chambers so that both metabolisms can be optimized independently. We have demonstrated upwards of 400 hours of continuous high-productivity operation and I am excited to see this technology progress.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing biotechnology?
Many of the large challenges for biotechnology are outlined in the recently published “The U.S. Bioeconomy: Charting a Course for a Resilient and Competitive Future” report. I am excited to see concerted focus from organizations like Schmidt Futures (and BioMADE & the SynBio Coalition) on the main topics from the report (Foundational Science & Technology Challenges, National Infrastructure for Bioproduction Scale-Up, A Well-Trained Workforce to Power the Bioeconomy, and A Policy Environment that Incentivizes and Supports a Circular Bioeconomy). Personally, I have long noted the problems of limited scale-up infrastructure and capacity, so it is especially comforting to see so much outside attention on this issue.
One challenge that the field faces that isn’t explicitly addressed in the Schmidt Futures report is that currently a low percentage of the American population feels comfortable engaging with biotechnology. Our field’s ability to have positive impacts on the future of our civilization depends not just on how many people accept the biotechnology revolution, but how many embrace it.
How many people can comfortably ask curious questions to knowledgeable sources? How many kids have access to biotech tools for learning and exploration? How many people are excited to join Drew Endy in imagining a beautiful future powered by biology (as opposed to only thinking of it as a tool for mitigating problems)? How many collaborations between artists and scientists explore the realms of what is possible together?
Yes, we need more scale-up capacity. Yes, we need well-codified tech-transfer best-practices. Yes, we need to find ways of applying artificial intelligence to the complex datasets generated by microbes. Yes, we need more commercially successful bioproducts. Yes, we need streamlined regulatory frameworks.
But if we don’t dramatically improve our field’s public perception, we will not be able to deliver on the promises these technologies offer. I hope that our field becomes much more transparent and welcoming to outsiders.
What are you working on now?
I’m a mission-driven person — it’s important to me that my career contributes to the betterment of human civilization. I am also a fermentation engineer at heart — I grow things. So I am focused on growing the American bioeconomy in whatever ways I can.
Minds.Microbes.Molecules.Machines is the name of my venture that provides a variety of consulting, educational, and community outreach services. Through this platform I am able to engage with a diverse swath of the biotech sphere. I really enjoy drawing on the range of experiences I’ve had in this industry to add value to important projects.
In addition to consulting around fermentation process development and scale up, it is immensely gratifying to work with educational institutions that are helping train the next generation of scientists and engineers while also increasing the general public’s understanding of biotechnology.
Lastly, I am a true believer in the power of creative collaboration to create massive positive change. If you have similar interests, please get in touch!