Dec 22, 2022 • 1HR 11M

Wrangling Novel Bacteria for Sustainable Chemical Production

MCJ Startup Series: MicroByre

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Today's guest is Sarah Richardson, CEO and co-founder of MicroByre, which is domesticating novel bacteria and using biology to produce chemicals that can supplant petrochemical production methods.

Only a small portion of a barrel of oil is responsible for its petrochemical outputs. Most of a barrel is what you'd expect: fuel that's converted to gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc. But that small portion of petrochemical feedstocks is really valuable; by some estimates, it makes up to a quarter or more of the value of a barrel of oil. If we want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to slow down climate change, one of the ways to do that is to lessen the value of a barrel of oil.

MicroByre does this by looking to the natural world. There are microbes and bacteria all around us, eating things, producing things, and living in all sorts of environments, from the highest mountains to the deepest sea vents. There may be a trillion or more bacterial species out there, with 99.99% of them undiscovered by humans. And yet when it comes to domesticating microbes, the technology world has turned almost exclusively to yeast and E. coli.

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We typically think of microbes as something to which you feed sugar and it outputs alcohol. That's fermentation and it's how we make sourdough bread, beer, kombucha, kimchee, etc. But on this show, we've covered other input/output combinations such as Zero Acre Farms which uses bacteria to produce cooking oils. So what combinations of bacteria, feed, and environment can produce valuable chemicals? And can these bacteria be genetically modified to do this even more efficiently?

These are the things that MicroByre is focused on. When we first started asking people about Sarah, more than one person told us that she was among the most intelligent people they'd ever met. Someone even said that they thought she'd win a Nobel Prize someday. After listening to her climate journey with bacteria, you’ll quickly realize why she’s highly regarded. We're thrilled to be investors in MicroByre at MCJ and hope you enjoy this conversation. 

In this episode, we cover: 

  • [3:10] Sarah's background and early lab experience 

  • [7:15] Her cross-disciplinary work at Johns Hopkins and the Department of Energy 

  • [16:55] Differences between biology and chemistry in trying to manipulate and grow organisms

  • [21:33] An overview of biotechnology vs. industrial biotechnology 

  • [22:37] Petroleum's role in chemical production 

  • [24:40] Sarah's motivation for working on climate 

  • [27:40] An overview of MicroByre 

  • [31:49] The role of genetic modification in MicroByre's solution 

  • [37:12] MicroByre's commercial business model 

  • [40:07] The company's flexible approach to working with clients and managing uncertainty 

  • [43:56] Some of the chemical compounds MicroByre is solving for

  • [47:22] The company's four client categories 

  • [55:22] The types of talent working at MicroByre 

  • [1:00:05] Funding to date and plans moving forward

Visit our website for a full transcript of this episode.

Get connected: 
Cody Simms
Sarah Richardson / MicroByre
MCJ Podcast / Collective

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Episode recorded on November 4, 2022.