Getting Creative: A Q&A with Michelle Shi
As Director of New Business, Michelle Shi combines creativity and scientific thinking to strategic partnership development and product commercialization, elevating Provectus Algae’s platform and products. In this Q&A, we chatted with Michelle about her background, perspectives, and approach.
Tell us about your background, education, and previous work.
So, my educational background is in molecular biology and chemistry. I collected my Bachelor’s at NYU, and I also worked there as a researcher for a few years.
During this time, I wrote a thesis on meiotic recombination. I did a few years of research using S. cerevisae to identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) within the meiotic recombination pathway.
Instead of going forward with research and getting a Ph.D., I decided to go directly into venture capital (VC), which is kind of an unusual path. In terms of VC as a career, a lot of people say that you “end up in VC.” You don’t typically start out your career early there.
Previously, I was the co-director of the Food and Ag Tech program at Plug and Play as well as a Senior Ventures Associate on the investment side.
So, I was doing both corporate innovation and investments. On the corporate side, I was working with large multinational companies and helping them identify their strategic roadmap for innovation. That includes considerations on how to work with startups and identifying the right technologies for their strategies in the long term and short term.
I was also launching quite a few programs for the Food and AgTech verticals at Plug and Play. Originally, we started out with our HQ in Silicon Valley. I helped launch new locations for our Food program in Brazil, Italy, Chicago, and China. I also worked on other more specific AgTech programs. We did in-field digitalization and automation in Fargo and focused on animal health in Topeka. So, we really did everything across the entire food value chain.
On the ventures side, I focused a lot on early-stage investments. Much of this work was devoted to innovative companies working on new ways to produce and think about food: like those developing animal-free foods, real-time tracking across the food value chain, and new sustainable packaging. I helped lead investments in Change Foods, Bond Pet Foods, Aanika Biosciences, Oobli, and others
What drew you to VC and fund raising?
I think it was a little bit of a serendipitous opportunity. I was coming out of research knowing that I wasn’t going to pursue further scientific education. I was trying to find a field where I could still be in the biotech and science space, but at the same time exploring something a little bit different. I wanted to find a dynamic field where I could still engage with a lot of people and learn about what really drives them.
I landed on this opportunity at Plug and Play and started learning about the food and health industries. I ended up realizing that there was significant white space in those industries for Plug and Play. For me, it was really exciting that I could be part of something new. At that time, the food space was really just starting to take off. Companies like Impossible and Beyond had been gaining a lot of traction, and new technologies were emerging and taking centerstage.
The space was expanding from really focused niche food investors to more generalist investors interested in expanding their portfolios. It was really rewarding to be part of an initial startup team to drive the program and grow it into the global platform that it is now.
What is your role at Provectus Algae, and how does it ladder up to the company’s mission?
I am the Director of Business Development at Provectus. I oversee initiation and management of strategic partnerships as well as the sales roadmaps for the ingredients we are bringing to market.
What convinced you to join Provectus Algae?
By spending a lot of time in the investment space, you end up talking to a lot of companies, and you learn a lot about what’s happening in specific high-attention spaces. For example, everybody is talking about alternative proteins and dairy. And rightfully so, because those companies are at the forefront of thinking about how we are going to feed our population in 2050.
In time, you start to see a lot of trends and similarities between the companies that you speak to. While having a community of like-minded startups working on similar challenges is incredibly important to tackling this generation-long problem, it tends to still be a pretty niche.
It’s very rare to come across what I call a true ‘platform technology’ company. This is a company that has a technology that can impact many different products and industries in a way that hasn’t been done before. So, when I first spoke to Nusqe, founder and CEO, I realized Provectus Algae was one of those rare companies. At the time, I was actually hoping that we could invest in Provectus Algae as Plug and Play Ventures.
Though that did not work out, it really excited me to learn about what Provectus was doing and its focus on developing scalable biomanufacturing with photosynthetic microalgae. That’s something that I hadn’t ever seen before despite my career searching for new types of companies in this space. I felt Provectus Algae had an opportunity to rival what those like Ginkgo Bioworks or Amyris were doing.
A few years after speaking with Nusqe, there was an opportunity for me to join the team. It was really exciting for me to help advance their biomanfacturing platform and contribute with my individual skill set and experience.
Learn How We Use Innovative Microalgae Biotechnology to Power Our Biomanufacturing Platform!
How does your background with Plug and Play help your work at Provectus?
Each role at Plug and Play is involved in some type of business development or sales. It’s all about the dealflow. On the venture side, you have to talk with a lot of startups to find them strategic partnerships, and on the corporate side, you’re speaking to corporations to find them the right technologies. Given that I had a dual role, I played matchmaker for startups, corporates, investors, and others. Ultimately it was about finding the right connections between the members of our ecosystem. I think having the ability to harness that network in both the corporate and the startup side is really helpful. Having key connections to individuals in both networks, where both could be customers and partners, really helps my work at Provectus.
What do you like most about Provectus Algae and your work?
I think it’s special to be working with a small group of people that are very determined to reach the same goal. It’s really exciting that we all believe in where Provectus Algae is headed, and I really enjoy being a part of a very like-minded community of people.
It’s also been interesting to learn about what it’s like on the flip side of things, coming from a VC background. It’s a very different dynamic sitting on the other side of the table. It’s a humbling experience to say the least!
Overall, it has been amazing to help bring a new type of thinking and a new type of biotechnology platform to the market.
What are some of your goals for the company?
Well, we want to sell product! We also want to form the right strategic partnerships to elevate all stakeholders with our biotechnology platform.
I’m especially excited about 2023 because we are at an inflection point. Right now, we are seeing an acceleration in our internal activities and in the external conversations that we’re having with our partners and customers, as we get closer to market. It’s validating to know that we are bringing a unique value to the industry itself.
Additionally, my goal is for people to just know who we are. In the last few years, we’ve largely kept our heads down, developing a tried and true platform technology that works not only for biodiscovery but on through to at-scale production.
Big question, but what would you say inspires or motivates you?
Speaking to our leadership, you can instantly tell that they are really passionate about our mission and vision. It takes a really strong conviction for someone to drop what they’re doing for an idea they believe in and grow a company around it. I think that itself is inspiring.
Additionally, I am also motivated by building a more sustainable world. How can we feed the world by 2050 without harming our planet further? It’s inspiring to see people that are not only thinking about themselves, but also about the generations that are coming after us.
Lastly, it’s encouraging to see not only individual startups working towards a goal, but an entire community of enterprises coming together to create a better future.
What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?
First of all, I think my first big achievement was completing my thesis. I think in research it can become very monotonous, especially since I was working on a mutagenesis screen where the goal is to build hundreds of candidates to test new ideas. So every day, I was doing a lot of the same things: picking colonies, screening them, and running the same tests over and over again.
Sometimes it feels like there’s no end goal. You worry that there’s nothing truly exciting that will come out of that research. But, as I was writing my thesis and assembling all of the findings, I saw all of that work come together, and I think it did mean something. In the grand scheme of things, it may not mean a lot, but I think it would mean something for other researchers in that space.
From my time at Plug and Play, I’m still really proud of the first office and program launch in Brazil. That was the first international office I helped launch. It was a really rewarding experience to see people gathered for our launch event in a region that others don’t typically think of as an innovation hub. It felt like we were really creating a difference. We were spreading a vision and connecting different communities together around innovation.
After launching Brazil, we had additional launch events in China, Chicago, Thailand, and others. It was great to see the dialogue I was helping to spread reach so many different people worldwide.
Lastly, I’ll mention that I introduced Provectus Algae to CJ group during a dealflow while I was at Plug and Play. Then, after joining Provectus, I ended up going to South Korea to join CJ BIO’s symposium on the Bio Revolution. It was really fulfilling to see one of those connections that I made at Plug and Play come to life later for Provectus. I think that’s one of my favorite stories of what it means to be part of this community.
Who do you consider to be a role model or mentor and why?
I’ve always looked up to him a lot. It’s incredible to consider the decisions and effort immigrants make that come to the United States or any other country.
It’s not a small feat to take your whole family and go to a place where you don’t know what to expect and don’t speak the language. Yet, they manage to maintain hope that it’s going to be better for their future. When they arrive, they really have to strive to make it their own home.
I’ve always looked up to my grandfather because he did just that not once but twice, first moving my mom’s family from Taiwan to Brazil, and then the US. They lived in Brazil for 10 years, then picked up everything again and went to New York and did it all over again.
That is absolutely mind blowing to me, since even a cross country move feels like a lot. I’m from the Bay Area, I went to New York for college and then researched at NYU. That move was a huge change for me, even though it’s in the same country, and we all speak the same language. But, to go between countries halfway around the world TWICE is incredible.
Professionally, I really looked up to Viji Subramanian, the Post-Doc that I worked under in the Hochwagen lab when I was at NYU. She came from India, got her PhD, and continued exploring her passion for science, basically all by herself. And, she just LOVED science. She was truly the first mentor that I had as a woman in science. That really helped me navigate what it meant to be a woman in science myself, especially since it’s not really talked about that often. She was so strong and always spoke her mind. She didn’t let anyone intimidate her in her field, even though I think as a woman in historically male-dominated science, it’s very easy to feel that way. Even if we don’t deserve to feel that way, it’s very easy to be intimidated, especially early in your career. So, I’ve always respected her in that way. And now, she’s running her own lab at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Tirupati!
What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a gym rat! I’m always at the gym. I find it very calming to decompress and declutter my mind in the gym.
I also love doing art. Before I really got into science, I always thought that I would be some type of creative. I think I always had a passion for art and digital design. I remember always carrying my sketchbook with me when going to class or around campus. In my free time, I would always be in the library sketching or drawing something.
The type of creative vision that I bring to my work has always benefited me in some way, whether it’s in presentations, marketing collateral, or other materials I make. I can always bring my own creative spin or vision to the work that I put out, and it seems to make a big difference. So, I think, in some type of way, I’m still a creative type!