Green packaging guru sees future in fungi
It would take someone with scientific skill, entrepreneurial flair, and a vision for change to pursue the notion that mushrooms could be the answer to our plastic packaging crisis.
Enter international student Jessica Chiang. At age 26, Jessica is Chief Scientific Officer at biocomposite packaging start-up BioFab, which has created natural and biodegradable packaging material from mycelium (the basic structure of fungi) and agricultural waste.
At the same time, Jessica is working on her PhD research, which is investigating a wide range of native New Zealand fungi species for their suitability to make biomaterials. She believes fungus in its varied forms has huge untapped potential and could be a versatile and valuable “green” product of the future.
“It’s fast-growing, insulative, hydrophobic, biodegradable, and of course, it’s completely natural,” she says. “Since New Zealand has been geographically separated from the rest of the world for so long, I believe it has unique fungi that we could find the value in to create a whole new industry for New Zealand.”
Deciding to study in New Zealand
Jessica has always been interested in science and felt a special connection to the natural environment. Seeking a more “diverse and open-minded” education than was available in Taiwan, her parents made the decision to send her to ACG Senior College in Auckland for years 12 and 13. With good grades under her belt, she ended up skipping Year 13 and heading straight to Auckland University to study biotechnology - a mix of bioengineering, biological science, medical science, and business.
She admits that the highlight of her university years was the community more than the courses. “I think I was lucky enough to be immersed in an environment which allowed me to network and grow as an individual.
“Taking the biotechnology degree allowed me to discover my soft skills earlier than I could have imagined and become involved in a group of people who offered mentorship, discussed career development, and opened my mind to the importance of networking.
“I quickly realised that networking is an important life skill as an international student. Once you get a circle of people doing amazing things around you, you get connected to the next circle of people doing amazing things, and you learn from them about how they achieved success.”
Successes stack up
It clearly worked, as Jessica stacked up a series of extra-curricular successes which included becoming CEO of Chiasma, a national student-led organisation that fosters connection between university and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) industries, focusing on research commercialisation. “This really helped me build up industry knowledge and make valuable contacts.”
She co-founded New Zealand’s first student genetic engineering team which created a project to take to the finals of the International Genetic Engineering Machine (IGEM) in the United States; and, with a growing reputation for entrepreneurial success, she was selected as one of 100 “potential leaders of tomorrow” to pitch at the prestigious Gap Summit in Washington DC.
She was one of the youngest entrants and won the top prize with her proposal to create a 3D printing material out of fungi to replace Styrofoam packaging. “That got a lot of attention – this young girl coming out of nowhere winning a prize ahead of young professionals.”
Jessica had earlier taken a version of the same idea to Auckland University’s Velocity Innovation Challenge, where she won best bioscience business idea.
“Having won this prestigious award in the US, I decided I really wanted to do something with it,” she says. Jessica approached the founders of BioFab and merged her ideas and skillsets with the venture to build the start-up into a research and development-oriented biotechnology company. And so began their partnership. “They support me in being as creative as I can with my work, and I support them in building the business with my ideas.”
Supportive culture for students
Through her own hard work and the support and encouragement of like-minded people, Jessica has achieved more success in New Zealand than she could have hoped for when she left Taiwan to study here at the age of 17.
She is excited about what the future holds, both personally and professionally. She certainly sees her future in New Zealand and is keen to be part of a community which has helped to get her where she is today.
“My life is entirely different from how I thought it would be,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a scientist working in a lab, but it’s taken a completely different turn because of the people I’ve met.
“There is a culture in New Zealand of being willing to help students develop their careers. I have gained access to people who are open-minded and willing to sit down and listen to young people.”
There is a culture in New Zealand of being willing to help students develop their careers.
Like many international students, Jessica has achieved success in a country far from home, and during challenging times. “I’ve lived a very independent life here, that’s why the community I have around me and the support I have received is so important.
“I love being in New Zealand. I have had the freedom to do what I want to do, and I’ve been able to balance my career with an outdoorsy lifestyle. I tell my friends back home that if they want a work-life balance they should come here. Bring an open mind, be prepared to network, and opportunities will come.”