Thinking Big: A Q&A with Preston Toole
From childhood experiences farming oysters and scallops in New England, to a career building large-scale automated aquatic facilities in Europe and Asia, the impact of Preston Toole’s work spans multiple continents and industries. As CTO of Provectus Algae, Toole develops machine learning solutions that provide infrastructure for optimized biomanufacturing. We asked him to shed some light on his expertise, inspiration, and the future of biomanufacturing.
First things first. Tell us about your background. How did you get started in biomanufacturing?
I’m an aquaculture professional. Growing up farming mollusks, I realized you need omics and automation to scale production. That led me to study pearl oyster genomics and computer vision in Australia, run fish farms in Hawaii, and build large RAS farms in Poland and Indonesia.
How did that lead you to Provectus Algae?
I see this next realm of incorporating synthetic biology into microalgae, and it’s allowing us to leverage microalgae as one of the four major pillars of biotech production, along with bacteria, yeast, and mammalian cell systems. Replacing synthetics is a metamorphosis, really, in how we make things.
What do you like most about your work at Provectus Algae?
Functionally, I’m production-centric. I facilitate building large manufacturing systems with machine learning and automation that yield high-quality products. Building bespoke biomanufacturing systems is really rewarding and stimulating because we iterate through various systems and product types, so we never stop learning. And we’re tackling a big problem, right? We’re creating material solutions that are carbon neutral and sustainable, and that’s the future of production.
What are your goals for Provectus Algae?
My vision is to lead multiple market verticals with products that address a broad spectrum of different aims, validating the concept of microalgae as a material source for a variety of products. As CTO, I want to continue innovating at the forefront of developing automated cell platforms at scale to bring real, tangible products to huge markets. My goal is to push the development of machine learning into a real-world environment, to change the way huge facilities operate and simplify algae production at-scale, which is inherently difficult to do.
What do you like about living and working in Noosa?
It’s a beautiful place to be. The ocean is close. The weather is perfect. The people are exceptionally kind and honest. Between all the places I’ve lived: Nantucket, Hawaii, and Bali, Noosa is world-class.
What are some accomplishments of which you’re most proud?
No. 1: Working with the team to develop a cloud-enabled computer vision cell analytics platform, the first in the microalgae space to include microfluidics and computational microscopes. No. 2: Designing and building fully automated and cloud-controlled therapeutic-grade reactors for microalgae with the team.
What inspires or motivates you?
Potential. At Provectus Algae, I get to work with incredibly smart and driven people to develop new biomanufacturing systems with numerous applications for product types that scale into large industrial systems. The potential of how many things we can accomplish with this platform is what drives me.
What’s one message, motto, or saying that’s important to you, and why?
One thing I tell my team often is to “think bigger.” Especially when you’re just starting a project, I think you need to think big. And you need to fail as big as the system will allow, so you can remedy those issues and quickly develop solutions to create systems that can perform at the necessary scale. Think as big as you can. You don’t make big things by doing everything right the first time. We’re playing the marathon game here—it’s about how much distance we can cover over the long term to deliver the vision.
When you’re not working to revolutionize biomanufacturing, what do you do in your free time?
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which I regularly practice. I also read a lot.
Read anything interesting lately?
Besides scientific papers, I’ve read a lot of business books recently. Most notably, “Last Man Standing: The Ascent of Jamie Dimon and JP Morgan.”
What do you consider the most exciting things happening in biomanufacturing, biotech, or synthetic biology right now?
Biotech right now feels like the beginning of the Internet boom. The speed and scale at which adoption of new synthetic biology toolkits, machine learning approaches, and automation technologies is increasing exponentially, while the price point continues to decrease. It’s incredibly exciting to be in this space right now.