URI biotechnology interns gain experience, employment at AgCore Technologies

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – August 21, 2015 — When Winston Ortiz was looking for an internship at the end of his first year in the University of Rhode Island’s Biotechnology Manufacturing Program, he knew he wanted to work at a smaller company where he could more easily connect with his co-workers and have a varied experience. He found what he was looking for at AgCore Technologies, a Cranston-based company that converts algae into a snack food while also producing fish food for hobby aquarists.

But Ortiz, a resident of Providence, wasn’t the only URI biotechnology student who found success at AgCore. The company has offered eight URI internships in the last three years and hired three of them as employees.

“At the end of the day, it’s a win-win situation for all of us,” said Larry Dressler, who started the company in 2013. “I get hungry youth who are dying to learn the business, and they get a great paid experience while earning school credits. They’re well educated, have lab fundamentals, and already understand a lot of the cell biology part of the business.”

Dressler’s staff and interns begin by growing a handful of algae cells in small test tubes, then continue growing them in larger and larger tanks, until they fill all 105 of the company’s large vertical tanks. The algae is then filtered and dried before being made into the final products.

Dressler calls his product, AgCore Spirulina, “the healthiest food known to man. It has more protein than steak, it’s vegan approved, it has more iron than spinach, more beta-carotene than carrots, more calcium than milk, more antioxidants than blueberries.” All he needs to grow it are sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and nutrients. And a few URI interns.

Ortiz said he uses all of the lab skills he learned at URI in his internship. “All of the chemistry and biology I learned in class are being put to the test here,” he said. “I’m always learning something new, and it’s never the same monotonous thing.”

Dan Matuszek agrees. The Pawtucket resident had little idea what biotechnology even was when he first enrolled at URI, but after a tour of the University’s Providence Biotechnology Center, he was hooked.

“It’s very empowering to manipulate microorganisms to produce high-end products,” said Matuszek, who graduated from the URI biotech program in 2014 and now serves as the company’s chief biologist while pursuing a graduate degree at URI.

By the end of his first year in the URI program, he was interning at AgCore, and three months later he was hired full time. “I arranged my class schedule so I could take classes at night for three years, and I went from being a technician at AgCore to a supervisor. Now I have my own interns I can assign to projects.”

Matuszek’s internship started before the company was producing food from algae, back when it was converting the algae into a biofuel. “It was a big paradigm shift going from biofuels to a nutraceutical product,” he said. “But it was a chance to develop my skills, and Larry gave me the freedom and creativity to experiment in order to make it work.”

The interns don’t just grow and produce algae, though. Each is also assigned a research project that can eventually help to improve the company’s operations. Ortiz is conducting an experiment to determine the precise quantity of nutrients that are required for optimal algae growth.

“Too much of any one nutrient would kill it; too little won’t get the growth we need,” he said. “They’re counting on me to make sure I get the perfect results.”

URI Associate Professor Ed Bozzi, who is responsible for identifying potential biotechnology internship opportunities, is pleased that Dressler has become actively involved in URI’s biotech program. Dressler is a frequent guest speaker in Bozzi’s classes, and he occasionally uses some of the URI laboratory equipment.

“No other company has done as much as AgCore in supporting our biotech program through student interns, student employees and class visits,” said Bozzi. “It’s the perfect partnership where both the students and company benefit from the arrangement.”

Pictured above: AgCore Technologies founder Larry Dressler (center) poses with URI students Winston Ortiz (left) and Dan Matuszek beside tall tanks of algae they produce at the company. (URI photo by Nora Lewis)