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January 09, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Knowing the ins and outs of brewing science was good preparation for a career in biotechnology

After a decade in the brewing industry, Eric Jorgenson has joined East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Research Corporation where he is heavily involved in workforce development and biomanufacturing.

For Eric Jorgenson, knowing the ins and outs of brewing science and process was good preparation for a career in biotechnology. He says industrial fermentation is fundamentally the same, whether a company is using microbes to make beer or any other chemical compounds.

After a decade in the brewing industry, he spent four years developing a biomanufacturing scale-up and production facility outside of Philadelphia. That served Jorgenson well for the role he’s performing today as Vice President for Biomanufacturing Development for East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Research Corporation.

Eric Jorgenson

Since arriving at ETSU in May, Jorgenson says he has two priorities. One part is developing educational programs for the workforce needed for biomanufacturing; the other is on ensuring the nation has an adequate supply of scale up facilities, built around opportunities that are offered in Northeast Tennessee.

“It is becoming a national security concern,” Jorgenson says of the lack of adequate facilities for biomanufacturing, including adequately trained workers. “Most of the opportunities are overseas, particularly in Europe and China.”

Work on the educational component has been accelerated by the September 2023 announcement (see article here) of a $1.3 million grant to ETSU from BioMADE, a national institute with a mission of helping secure America’s future through bioindustrial manufacturing innovation, education, and collaboration. The grant total exceeds $3.3 million when including costs shared by ETSU and its partners.

Under the project titled “Completing the Bioindustrial Pipeline: A Multidisciplinary Workforce Development Institute for Biological and Bioprocess Engineering for the Appalachian Highlands,” ETSU will develop a set of bioprocess engineering, bioindustrial automation, and synthetic biology curriculum modules with the goal of equipping traditional and non-traditional high school and college students with the skills necessary to succeed in the bioindustrial manufacturing industry.

“Our program has to stay responsive to industry needs,” Jorgenson says. Between the participation of local industry partners like TN Hills and Crown Labs, and Jorgenson’s role on the NSF Biomanufacturing Industry Advisory Council, he’s confident that ETSU can stay on the cutting edge.

The University is also working with the BioBuilder Foundation and the Niswonger Foundation on the high school education component. A synthetic biology curriculum developed at MIT is already being taught in most high schools in the First Congressional District with the goal of expanding it to other regions. “Ours is the first district in the nation to systematically roll out this educational component, and we hope our success can be a template – especially for other rural regions” Jorgenson says.

And, thanks to the donation of Eastman’s former Valleybrook campus in 2010, ETSU also has a facility where it can work with scientists to take their synthetic biomanufacturing project from petri dish to viable commercial product. The campus includes 144 acres, a 72,000-square foot-research and office complex with 29 labs, and 30,000 square feet of warehouse.

“Our goal with Valleybrook is to use the facilities to lower the barrier of entry for start-ups,” Jorgenson says. Those barriers start with the prohibitively expensive equipment and the multidisciplinary experience necessary to apply the technology effectively. The plan is to follow the national lab model which ranges from a facility that users can access for their work to performing work for others as well as joint research.

“Industry runs on just a few model microbes that are fed highly purified dextrose,” Jorgenson says. “That’s a problem for sustainability and cost. Can you find other feedstocks? Re-purposing waste biomass is becoming an increasingly viable option.”

That provides another impetus that could result in the ultimate goal of establishing the region as a national synthetic bio hub.

Jorgenson joined the ETSU Research Corporation after 14 years in industrial fermentation, including breweries and biotech across California, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. That included living in the unincorporated community of Flag Pond in Unicoi County for nearly four years during his wife’s tenure as a Niswonger Scholar. Jorgenson commuted daily through the mountains to Highland Brewing Company in Asheville where he served as Quality Assurance and Quality Control Manager, building their brewing science lab and developing the department from a blank slate.

After being recruited to Victory Brewing Company in Parkesburg, PA in 2017, the couple immediately set their long-term sights on getting back to the region. Jorgenson’s career shifted to biotechnology in 2019, and he fell in love with the industry, its potential to replace damaging industrial chemicals with more natural solutions, and the strong fit with his skillset developed in breweries across the nation. By the time he finished building a benchtop-to-industrial scale-up biomanufacturing facility for Envera, a biotech company in West Chester, PA, the kind of jobs that Jorgenson wanted simply did not exist in Northeast Tennessee. He had come to the realization that if he wanted to move back to the region, he had to be part of the team that would build it. Then the role at ETSU opened, and it was something that he describes as “serendipity.”

Jorgenson says that he learned of a conference that ETSU hosted in October 2022 titled “Growing the Future: Symposium on Innovation and Education for the Bioeconomy.” While he was in the middle of a major engineering project and could not attend, contacts at the Niswonger Foundation helped him connect with several key individuals including David Golden, Chief Executive Officer of the ETSU Research Corporation, and Dr. Natalie Kuldell, Executive Director of the BioBuilder Educational Foundation.

Now, Jorgenson has an opportunity to build the needed infrastructure to support new biotech startups and train the future workforce, “living in our favorite part of the country while also helping develop the industry.”

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