Tom Emrich-Mills – Phase BioLabs

Where did you go and what did you do?

Phase BioLabs at The University of Nottingham – working in the Biodiscovery Institute in Prof Nigel Minton’s large and extremely well-equipped synthetic biology lab. My PIPS supervisor and boss was David Ortega, an ex-PhD student of Nigel’s and the founder of a recent start-up called Phase BioLabs –

The featured photo at the top of this article is the view from the Biodiscovery Building at The University of Nottingham.

David wants to produce solvents, plastic precursors and other high-value commodities from anaerobic bacteria using waste CO2 and renewable hydrogen as the only two feedstock gases. If performed at scale, this technology could be carbon neutral and make use of vast quantities of waste CO2 from the fermentation industry.

I undertook a mixture of lab work and online research. The lab work was split between proof-of-concept work regarding the gas fermentation technology used by Phase Biolabs and engineering new systems into the organism to enhance the range of products the company could manufacture. The online work was mainly market research and research into lifecycle assessments and emissions data for new chemical products, as well as searching for EU funding calls for the company.

Approaching Nottingham Castle

What made you want to do that particular placement?

David was the first to respond from five or so renewable or climate change-focused companies to which I enquired. His website was impressive, and his mission statement and his enthusiasm were encouraging, so I was happy to organise a meeting with him over Zoom. He introduced me to the field of anaerobic bacterial research and suggested some papers to read. The project sounded really interesting and there happened to be plenty of non-lab work to go alongside, enabling me to work remotely for the beginning and end of the placement.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

Keen to find a non-academic enterprise working in climate change or sustainability science, I spent three hours or so gathering information for companies in the UK that had an impressive mission statement. All it took then was several emails explaining my background and offering my help.

Once David was on board, the PIP was delayed due to the ongoing lockdowns. David and I were in frequent communication so finding a suitable three-month period was not too tricky. 

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

My time at Phase Biolabs was brilliant. I experienced a fleeting but illuminating insight into the world of anaerobic bacteria research and the synthetic biology involved in engineering metabolism, especially towards engineering the production of chemicals from microbes.

I now have a much better understanding of market research as a concept and a practice. Finding out about the market you are aiming to disrupt is far more difficult than I envisioned, with many summaries and reports behind steep paywalls, key figures and references hidden in gigantic reports and relevant organisations unwilling to talk freely over the phone.

From a peek into the world of commercial funding, I now also have a sliver of understanding about work that goes into sourcing money for a start-up like Phase Biolabs.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

A welcome break from my research field. Hard work, but rewarding, interesting and mentally refreshing.