Jason Ryder: Better living through bioprocess engineering

Alumnus Jason Ryder stands in front of the UC Berkeley campanile. Photo Sasha Haagensen.

New master’s program opens exciting doors for students

By Denise Klarquist. Photos by Thor Swift/Berkeley Lab.

‘Better Living Through Chemistry’ is a phrase that’s been around since the 1930s. Associated with everything from plastics to prescription medications, it has not always had the most positive connotations. A much better slogan for our current times might be ‘Better Living Through Bioprocess Engineering’. And no doubt Adjunct Professor Jason Ryder (Ph.D. ‘03, ChemE) would agree.

A natural entrepreneur, numerous achievements from a career in industrial biotechnology and food tech pepper Ryder’s resume — the design of large-scale facilities for bio-based chemicals and fuels, the manufacture of recombinant spider silk to replace nylon fibers, the processing of plant-based proteins to make egg-free scrambled eggs, and the production of sweet plant proteins to reduce our global dependency on sugar.

His passion for his work is effervescent — a lot like the soon-to-be-released drinks from his company, Joywell Foods, where he and his team are establishing a new category of delicious foods and beverages based on naturally sweet plant proteins. “I love bioprocessing in all forms,” Ryder enthuses. “They’re like my kids, they’re all my favorites. I am passionate about closing mass and energy balances around the world, using biotechnology to solve problems spanning climate, food, and health. And I love developing and growing microbes, plants, people, scientists, engineers, and companies along the way.”

What may be his most impactful endeavor, however, is the creation of the new Master of Bioprocess Engineering Program (MBPE) in the College of Chemistry which he leads as its executive director.

Shreyas Savant makes a sterile addition to the ABEC 300L stainless steel bioreactor.

The intensive 9-month curriculum is designed to prepare students for meaningful careers as bioprocess scientists and engineers in the biopharmaceutical, industrial biotech, and food tech industries. Key to this is a balanced curriculum of fundamentals and hands-on training with common bioprocess equipment at both bench- and pilot-scale.

The program evolved from a very real need in the burgeoning bioprocess engineering field — one which Ryder experienced acutely in his professional life — as well as from his own academic journey.

During the 1990s, earning his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the University of Alabama while participating in internships and research projects with Dow, DuPont, and Exxon, Ryder experienced an existential crisis. “In each of these roles, I questioned where all the materials and waste products I was making were going post-consumer. If we continued on the path of making more single-use materials, what would the mass and energy balances around the world look like?” he relates. A prescient professor pointed him to UC Berkeley where Ryder was able to focus on research projects aligned with his passion for sustainability, working with Alexis Bell and Arup Chakraborty and obtaining a Ph.D. in 2003. From there he built his career in bioprocess engineering, developing renewable alternatives to petrochemical-based products, and more sustainable foodstuffs through the application of biotechnology.

Vicky Oivares with ABPDU Principal Process Engineer Jan-Philip Prahl takes a fermentation sample from ABEC 300L stainless steel bioreactor.

After nearly 20 years in the industry, he and others in the field came up against a hard reality. “The field of biotechnology is exploding, growing far faster than the supply of trained bioprocess scientists and engineers needed to develop, scale and commercialize it,” notes Ryder.

The potential for people entering the field is enormous. According to the 2020 California Life Sciences Sector Report, there are currently over 3700 companies in the life sciences sector, including biopharma industrial biotech, food tech, advanced biologics and more. Combined, they directly employ over 300,000 Californians at an average salary of $123,000 annually.

“The challenge,” Ryder says, “is that the bioprocess industry has benchmarks on the training required to perform roles such as associate scientist or process engineer. In the past, many of our graduating students did not meet or even know about these benchmarks and were instead hired into operations roles with no clear growth path. Companies, in turn, were continuously poaching from each other, relying on contract positions, and not investing in the scientists and engineers they will need in 10 years. This was a recipe for failure.”

When UC Berkeley invited Ryder to come back and share his industry experience to help better prepare students to take advantage of the wealth of opportunity in the field, he enthusiastically accepted. Pulling together colleagues in the bioprocess industry from Amyris, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Sutro Biopharma, and Vir Biotechnology, Ryder created an Industrial Advisory Board to help develop the curriculum and ensure graduates met or exceeded the hiring benchmarks set by the industry. As an early sign of the MBPE program’s success, all graduates of the inaugural 2020-21 MBPE class received job offers and accepted full-time roles in bioprocess development and engineering.

The foundation of the new Master of Bioprocess Engineering program is the CHMENG 170 Biochemical Engineering series. Co-taught by Profs. Wenjun Zhang and Brian Maiorella, these lecture and laboratory courses are designed to introduce the essential concepts of bioprocessing to chemical and biomolecular engineers for applications in the biopharmaceutical, industrial biotech, and food tech industries. The combined curriculum provides a comprehensive training and toolkit in the analysis, design, development, scale-up, and commercialization of bio-based processes and products.

A particular favorite of Ryder’s in the course series is the “Pet Biomolecule” term project  “Each semester, students choose a “pet biomolecule” out of the Harry Potter sorting hat,” he explains. Noting the pointed hat which sits on a shelf in his Gilman office, he adds, “or I should say, the pet biomolecule chooses them.” Leveraging their creativity and biochemical engineering fundamentals, students design a process over the course of the semester to make their biomolecules. At the end of the term, they present their projects to a panel of colleagues from the bioprocess industry. “It’s loads of fun and a way for our students to demonstrate what they’ve learned through an industry-relevant application,” Ryder emphasizes. In many cases, students learn that the experts invited to review their projects are making their molecules in real life, giving students a valuable opportunity to connect with industry.

Ryder aims to keep term projects highly relevant to current challenges facing our students and world. So much so that for their 2020-21 capstone projects, MBPE students designed both upstream and downstream processes to make novel SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) to treat COVID-19. Unique to UC Berkeley’s Master of Bioprocess Engineering program, during the second semester students learn quality frameworks like Quality by Design (QbD), statistical experimental design tools like Design of Experiments (DOE), and other advanced concepts recommended and co-taught by the Industrial Advisory Board.

The students, in turn, apply these frameworks and tools to their capstone bioprocesses, biopharmaceutical ingredients, and final drug products to build additional industry-relevant skills and experience. Recognizing that our current arsenal of antibiotics may no longer be effective against pathogenic bacteria within the next 50 years, the 2021-22 capstone projects also included novel antibiotics.

Tiffany Chen at the high throughput bioreactor platform, Berkeley Lab.

Another key differentiator to the MBPE program is the Advanced Bioprocess Engineering Laboratory course. Taught at the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU) — part of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and established by the United States Department of Energy to help ramp up the bioeconomy — students get hands-on pilot-scale training on five different unit operations identified by the Industrial Advisory Board as critical in the industry. Ryder points out, for example, the Sartorius Ambr250 High Throughput Bioreactor Platform, which is ubiquitous across biopharma, industrial biotech and food tech.

Lastly, recognizing that there are many career paths for students to follow from biopharma to industrial biotech to food tech and more, a bioprocess engineering seminar series is integral to the program. Each week industry speakers are invited to give 80-min presentations on bio-based technology processes and products, providing an engaging platform where students can ask questions and interact with industry professionals. Speakers have included leaders and alumni from Impossible Foods, Genentech, Pfizer, Moderna, Artemys Foods, and Tenaya Therapeutics to name a few. To garner visibility for both students and the program, Ryder posts these seminars prolifically on LinkedIn.

Referring to a recent seminar featuring Bob Kiss of Upside Foods, Ryder shared his efforts toward building momentum in the program. “I invited all next year’s newly accepted MBPE cohort to join remotely via Zoom while Bob was on campus speaking to our current MBPE students as well as aa number of BS and Ph.D. students from across chemistry, bioengineering, and molecular cell biology. This is another example of how I’m trying to bring our students and industry closer together.”

Vicky Olivares, Alaina Anand, Jose Vidal, and Mikk Otsmaa during the CHMENG 275L course.

Naturally, Ryder’s focus is on his current students and helping them take the next steps beyond Berkeley in their professional careers. However, in the future he envisions being able to invite more of the bioprocess community to that seminar and to offer more training, not just to MBPE students, but potentially to continuing students and to professionals who may want to come back to UC Berkeley for a workshop or executive course. 

These possibilities illuminate Ryder’s bigger goal. “What I’m trying to do here is build a bioprocess community,” he explains. “I look at the MBPE program as a center of a much larger bioprocess community that surrounds us in the Bay Area, California, the US, and the world. We’re right here in the middle of it in Silicon Valley. We have the knowledge, the tools, and the people from which to teach and grow these aspiring bioprocess scientists and engineers. They in turn will help us translate the biotechnology that we’re developing into solutions spanning climate, food, and health.”