Microbiology – A Field Ripe for Entrepreneurship

gloved hands removing liquid from vial with syringe

Are you fascinated with microbiology? Have you ever thought about how to integrate your passion for research and entrepreneurship? The field of microbiology is expanding and being significantly impacted by advancements in technology. Recently, we interviewed Zack Abbott, Ph.D., who is the co-founder of ZBiotics. Zack explained his journey from studying infectious diseases to starting his own business focused on engineering bacteria for positive results. If you’ve ever wondered how you can be on the cutting edge of life sciences research, while working for yourself, read on about Zack’s experience.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about your background before entering the microbiology field?

I did my undergrad at UC Berkeley, where I double-majored in Molecular and Cell Biology and Classical History. I did not leave college thinking I would be a microbiologist. I wasn't actually sure what I wanted to do, and so I tried out a few different jobs. Eventually, while gaining experience as a research assistant in an HIV lab at UC Davis, I realized that I would be happy with a career in infectious disease.

After talking with some people who worked in different professions within the infectious disease field, it became apparent that to have the opportunities I wanted, I should earn a Ph.D. I ended up in the Microbiology and Immunology department at the University of Michigan, where I studied a bacteria that was the causative agent of a rare form of pneumonia called Legionnaire's Disease. This led me towards engineering or otherwise harnessing bacteria for good, which is what I do now at ZBiotics, rather than focusing on infection and disease.

2. What are some of the top careers/job roles in microbiology? Why did you start your own company, ZBiotics?

There's a lot of really fun stuff you can do in the world of microbiology. The big buckets are academia, pharma, agriculture, biotech, and medical. Obviously, there's overlap in the focus, but generally, academia is focused on research and discovery, while pharma, agriculture, and biotech are more focused on innovation and commercialize solutions to problems. As I mean it here, medical refers to microbiology labs in hospitals and contract labs diagnosing infectious diseases. Those are the major fields microbiologists likely find themselves in.

I started ZBiotics because I liked the idea of innovation and developing novel solutions to existing problems, but rather than join an existing biotech or pharma company, I thought it would be fun to pursue my own ideas. It was a thrilling proposition for me to take something out of my own head and try to build it into something that people are going to use in their day-to-day lives!

3. What are some of the top benefits of being in the microbiological field?

Now more than ever, microbiology has expanded to include many diverse focuses as people begin to appreciate and accept the importance of microbes in our everyday lives. The potential for discovery and innovation is unprecedented, and subsequently, there is more and more money being invested in advancing the field and the companies in it. It is becoming nearly as easy as a few clicks on your computer to do a synthetic biology experiment, thanks to all the companies providing outsourced services, and so the rate of innovation is astonishing. There is no more exciting or better field to be in right now, in my opinion.

4. Have you noticed any new trends related to microbiology professions?

The emergence of new technologies and services in the field of synthetic biology have created opportunities for microbiologists to do so much more, quicker and at a lower cost. I think this has opened up the field in a way that focuses on microbiology and the positive aspects microbes can have on us and our environment. As little as 20 years ago, the field of microbiology was small and far more focused on disease and "bad" microbes, but now it has shifted towards focusing on engineering, and/or harnessing "good" microbes, which has enabled a lot of exciting innovation and new opportunities, including what we are doing at ZBiotics.

5. How competitive is it to become a Microbiologist?

I suppose in part it depends on what kind of microbiology you choose, but generally speaking, the entire field as it currently exists is pretty specialized and requires training. As it expands, so does the need and opportunity for new and aspiring scientists, whether through large corporations or small startups like ZBiotics. But to take advantage of that, you'd likely need at least an undergraduate degree and some level of experience working in a lab. As it gets easier to outsource basic microbiology services such as DNA synthesis and cloning, different skills will become even more valuable in the field.

6. What advice would you give to aspiring microbiology professionals?

I truly believe that this is where big things are going to happen! And you don't necessarily need a degree in microbiology specifically to be desirable and/or hire-able as the field evolves. A degree in another biological science or even chemistry, engineering, math, computer science, etc., along with some relevant experience in the lab could set you up to make a meaningful impact in the field. Even just volunteering as a lab tech in a research lab to learn the ropes and then really diving into the science that particular lab is working on is enough to get started. That experience mixed with a unique perspective and a heap of creativity is more than enough to do something amazing. And the field is ripe for some amazing things to emerge!

If you have a degree in biological sciences and experience working in a laboratory, pursuing a career in microbiology might be a good fit. Working on the latest innovations in research, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and biotechnology are responsibilities commonly associated with Microbiologists. In the event you have the desire to build your own company, there are ways to profit off of your own research and discoveries. How could you capitalize on the rapidly developing field of microbiology?

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Porschia Parker is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.

Zack Abbott, Ph.D., co-founder of ZBiotics, created the world's first genetically engineered probiotic designed to eliminate an unwanted byproduct of responsible alcohol consumption; also known as ZB183 and the main ingredient in the company's first product. Abbott founded ZBiotics in 2016, harnessing his motivation for creating solutions for complex problems and ultimately using science to support the growing human population, prevent disease, and reverse climate change.

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