Montana State University

MSU sophomore finds success in budding career with local biotech company

February 13, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service


As part of her job at a local biotech company, MSU engineering sophomore Elizabeth Aisenbrey has met with some of the most influential leaders in Montana. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- In her career as a consultant, Elizabeth Aisenbrey has prepared presentations for the governor and state senators, represented her employer in meetings with state agencies, attended industry conferences and helped pitch her company's proposals to some of the most influential people in Montana.

Not bad for a 19-year-old sophomore studying chemical and biological engineering at Montana State University.

Since May, when she was just finishing her freshman year at MSU, Aisenbrey has worked for CTW Energy, a small alternative energy company with offices in Bozeman and Deer Lodge.

"A year and a half ago, I was writing essays to get into college, and now I'm writing grant proposals," she said.

The company is developing a system that will use algae to cleanse wastewater, said Joseph Menicucci Jr., the owner of CTW and an adjunct instructor of chemical and biological engineering at MSU.

The benefit of using algae, rather than the more commonly used bacteria, to treat wastewater is that the algae can then be processed for their oil. That oil can then be used to make biodiesel.

CTW is putting a water treatment-biodiesel system together specifically for the city of Deer Lodge, Menicucci said. New rules about piping wastewater into the Clark's Fork River mean that the city has to find a new way to deal with its wastewater by the end of the year if it is to comply with Montana Department of Environmental Quality regulations.

In addition to treating wastewater and producing valuable biodiesel, Menicucci and Aisenbrey also hope to power the entire Deer Lodge wastewater system using biogas produced by waste from the state prison. CTW is in preliminary talks with the prison, he said.

Founded in early 2008, CTW is a member of the Bozeman-based TechRanch entrepreneur network, which mentors new technology-related business in Montana. Menicucci sought TechRanch's help in marrying his technical plan to a working business plan.

"I have almost no business sense at all," Menicucci said "My scientific-world instincts tell me to basically give everything I do away for free."

Menicucci met with advisers from TechRanch who showed him how to make a viable business out of his scientific ideas. Menicucci said he was "blown away" by the help TechRanch was able to provide.

CTW has put all that advice to good use. In the last six months, Aisenbrey and Menicucci have given presentations about CTW's plans to the governor's office and other state agencies, and those presentations have been well-received, Menicucci said. The company also recently received a grant of nearly $50,000 from the state's Growth through Agriculture program.

Two years ago, when she was in advanced placement science classes at her high school in Loveland, Colo., Aisenbrey never dreamed that she would be a founding employee at a biotech startup and roaming Montana's halls of power.

"Coming into MSU, I was just planning on the normal four years of school," she said. "I never dreamed of landing a job my freshman year."

It started last year with an independent study project under Menicucci at MSU. Aisenbrey came up with the idea for a project on biomimicry -- using engineering to mimic the designs of nature in manmade products -- and asked Menicucci to advise her. For the project, she built a snowshoe modeled after a wolf's paw.

Menicucci recognized Aisenbrey's potential and her ability to juggle numerous commitments at once -- in addition to her heavy 19-credit course load and a job, Aisenbrey was a member of the Society of Women Engineers and Engineers Without Borders.

"This is a premiere student," Menicucci said. "She's capable of doing extraordinary things."

He hired Aisenbrey in May, and now she is CTW's lead algae growth researcher, working daily in the company's lab just west of MSU. She also helps with the business side of things, writing budgets, making proposals and preparing grant applications.

"If it sounds like a lot of responsibility for a 19-year-old, it is," Menicucci said.

One of the challenges they ran into was that Aisenbray was not familiar with some of the scientific concepts in practice at CTW; being only a freshman at the time, she hadn't yet encountered them in her coursework.

Underneath it all, Aisenbrey maintains a passion for alternative energy technologies. Finding new ways to generate the country's electricity and help end the dependence on foreign oil are big motivations for her.

The work has helped her in class because she can take her lessons a step further and apply them in reality, rather than just in textbooks, she said. The job has also helped her develop personally, she said. All the presentations and meetings have made her a more confident and outspoken person.

"It's definitely given me the opportunity to build my confidence and education," she said. "It's been a huge lesson for me."

Related Stories

"MSU entrepreneur center develops Montana economy, one student at a time," Jan. 26, 2005 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=2152

"Student calls Monsanto biotech internship 'imaginative,'" April 22, 2003 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=875

Contact: Joseph Menicucci Jr. at 406-579-5401 or joseph.menicucci@ctwenergy.com; Elizabeth Aisenbrey at elizabeth.aisenbrey@ctwenergy.com