From Baking Bread to Making Biofuel
An Interview with Culture Bioscience's Director of Fermentation: Fre Tachea
Fre is Culture Bioscience’s Director of Fermentation, and was the second full time employee to join the company. Her wealth of experience about fermentation and her passion for satisfying customers have been critical to our growth and success. We sat down with Fre to learn more about her background and how she ended up joining Culture.
Max: When did you first become interested in fermentation?
Fre: Before my first exposure to the science of fermentation in undergrad, all I knew of it was making Injera (Ethiopian flatbread). We had a starter culture growing up that we used to make dough and we’d let it ferment for 3 days to get beautiful bubbles from the CO2 before baking. I never thought I’d end up building a career in fermentation!
As an undergrad studying chemical engineering, I interned with Shell evaluating ethanol as a renewable biofuel. After the internship, with a year still left to finish undergrad, I was offered a job by Project Gaia, which was collaborating with Shell on biofuel projects. My family advised against taking the job while at school, telling me to instead focus on my studies. But I was really interested in the work and I pushed through it, working full time while earning my degree.
Max: Can you tell me a little more about Project Gaia and your work with them?
Fre: Project Gaia works to provide access to safe, clean, renewable biofuels for cooking in developing countries. My responsibility was to conduct feasibility studies on different ways to enable farmers to do their own small-scale fermentations. We were exploring whether we could help people do ethanol fermentation in their backyard cheaply and easily. I traveled to India and throughout Africa to investigate the cost effectiveness of using different feedstocks and to understand the ease of use of different distillation systems.
It was a really amazing experience to be able to travel the world and to find ways to help people get access to fuels. There was also an environmental aspect to our mission, as many of these people were using wood for fuel which contributed to accelerating deforestation.
Max: How did you end up landing here in California?
Fre: After a few years of traveling I decided to go back to graduate school. I had several options but was really drawn to San Jose State’s program because the thesis work is in collaboration with industrial biotech companies and I wanted to get hands-on experience. I was already a fermentation addict at this point and so I did my thesis project on wine fermentation, which was a lot of fun.
After school I got a job with Cobalt, which was making biofuels with strictly anaerobic fermentation. My job was to figure out how to pretreat the feedstocks for production of jet fuel to break down cellulose into sugars that the cells could consume. I really liked it and learned a lot, but I wanted to work more on the fermentation side than the pretreatment side.
From Cobalt I moved to ZeaChem, which had a separate team doing pretreatments and I could focus purely on the fermentation processes. I was working on developing and implementing a process for continuous anaerobic fermentation with tangential flow filtration for cell recycling.
Max: What’s that!?
It is like a chemostat but with perfusion, but it was incredibly challenging because the microbes grow to such a high biomass that it can clog the filtration. It was really rewarding to develop this process successfully, and I then moved on to another project for anaerobic fermentation of acetic acid for ethanol production.
Max: It sounds like you had a ton of experience in biofuels and with anaerobic fermentation. When did you develop all of your expertise in different types of organisms and processes that you use to help all of our clients today?
Fre: Biofuel production was a really hot area back then, and there was a lot of grant money and investments being poured into the field. It started to dry up though when there were no major breakthroughs, and ZeaChem closed their Menlo Park facility. Within a week of it closing someone reached out to me from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit (ABPDU), and that opened up a whole new world of fermentation for me.
I was quickly exposed to different types of aerobic and anaerobic fermentation and got to work on different processes with different microbes for making all types of different products. I got to build my own team and manage complex projects, which led me to then pursue a degree in project management as well. I loved it there and I loved the people I worked with and the work I did, and won several achievement awards.
"Sometimes a great idea for a great product doesn’t make it because the process just isn’t economically scalable, and I recommend that these considerations inform decisions on resource allocation. "
Max: What happened that led you to leave ABPDU and join Culture?
Fre: When Will first reached out to me, I wasn’t interested in leaving my stable government job that I loved, where I had won awards for performance, to take a huge risk in joining a startup. But after he told me about his vision for automating fermentation processes, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
I realized how often I had to monitor fermentation experiments. When I was cooking at home I would constantly be refreshing my laptop to check on the lab. There were so many times when I had to drive back to the lab in Berkeley from my home in Sunnyvale to check samples. One night I woke up in the middle of the night and said to my husband “there is something wrong in the lab,” and he told me to go back to sleep, but I went in on my intuition and found that there was an issue where tubing had cracked. I was so invested in satisfying my customers by getting their processes right, but it just required so much manual energy. I knew that there had to be a better way, and that the future of fermentation would be in automation.
When I told Will I was interested in coming to see their lab, I couldn’t believe what I found. There was like one tiny almost-bioreactor and their fermentation processes needed serious help. But I believed in their mission and that the future of fermentation would be in automation, and knew that my background and experience could help make that possible. I even turned down a full scholarship to a machine learning program at UC Berkeley, because I wanted to help make their vision a reality. So I joined Culture, and I’m so happy that I did.
Max: You’ve helped a lot of companies develop their fermentation processes. What advice would you share for companies looking to get into this space?
Fre: I strongly recommend that people run fermentation experiments in duplicate or triplicate. Often companies will limit to only doing one version of a process to save time or money. But it can be very hard to tell from just one bioreactor and the additional data often saves you even more time and money in the long run.
I also suggest that companies do a mass balance on every fermentation to really understand their process. You need to take an accounting of everything that comes in and that comes out so you can know what can be improved.
Finally, I highly encourage companies to always be studying and considering the scalability of their process. Sometimes a great idea for a great product doesn’t make it because the process just isn’t economically scalable, and I recommend that these considerations inform decisions on resource allocation.
Max: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story, Fre. Before we wrap-up, can you tell me a little bit about what you do when you’re not in the lab?
Fre: I love to play with my kids, and I really like going bowling. I’m not that great at it but it’s a lot of fun. I also really like pinball and table tennis, but more watching my kids play.