UAA startup wins young entrepreneur award in Norway

by Matt Jardin  |   

Michael Martinez
UAA chemistry major Michael Martinez was awarded the 2020 High North Young Entrepreneur Award during the High North Dialogue Conference in Bodø, Norway, for his green biotechnology startup Arctic Biotech Oath. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

On April 21, UAA chemistry major Michael Martinez was awarded the 2020 High North Young Entrepreneur Award during the High North Dialogue Conference in Bodø, Norway, along with a money prize of 50,000 NOK (5,800 USD) for his startup Arctic Biotech Oath (ABO).

“I’m very honored and appreciative to receive this award,” said Martinez, who is of both Yupik and Otomi descent with ties to the village of Kotlik, and has been an ANSEP (Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program) student since 2011. “Being indigenous to Alaska, it shows that we are able to have these ideas that are able to drive the future of green extractions and green biotechnology. As for Arctic Biotech Oath, hopefully this brings a new green industry to Alaska that would include new opportunities, new facilities and a new job market that is able to help Alaska grow.”

ABO is a biotechnology startup focused on the green extraction of rare earth elements in circumpolar north countries. Consisting of 17 metals and projected to grow from a $2.98 billion industry to $15.65 billion by 2030, rare earth elements are used in everything from medical equipment to military defenses, and perhaps most importantly, everyday mobile devices.

Arctic Biotech Oath logo
(Photo courtesy of Michael Martinez / Arctic Biotech Oath)

To safely mine these metals, ABO utilizes lab-grown microorganisms that originate from naturally occurring bacteria and fungi to maintain the pH of freshwater. By contrast, conventional extractions implement chemicals such as cyanide that can lead to irreparable damage to an ecosystem and its surrounding communities.

While Martinez always knew he’d use his passion for science to benefit Alaska and the Arctic, the research that would inspire ABO did not begin until he joined Brandon Briggs’ lab.

"Michael is extremely bright and motivated to help Alaskans and I’m so glad to be part of his journey,” said Briggs, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences and director of Advanced Instrumentation in Microbiome Studies. “One of the greatest joys of mentoring is watching your mentees grow and overcome obstacles. He has a very bright future ahead of him."

Michael Martinez receives the High North Entrepreneur Award
Michael Martinez (right) receives the High North Entrepreneur Award from Bjørg Helene Jenssen, department manager of Innovation Norway. (Photo courtesy of Trine Jonassen / High North News)

Selected from 18 submissions from the United States, European Union, China and Russia representing industries including information technology, tourism and oceanography, the jury evaluated submissions based on how they impact the North, the quality of the application and presented business plan, and the uniqueness and originality of the idea.

“This is a project with a huge potential to create value, and I am impressed with both the creativity behind and the technology of this project,” said Frode Mellemvik, Ph.D., director of the High North Center. “Michael is an excellent High North Young Entrepreneur and I wish him all good luck in the continuation of developing this important project that is absolutely in line with the green-shift that is needed in much of the industry.”

Looking ahead, Martinez has already planned out his next steps for ABO, including establishing a headquarters, raising capital, building a team and more.

“Now is a pretty exciting time to get this going,” said Martinez. “But also looking to future capabilities, in 20 years or so as more developments head into space, perhaps we'd also be able to bring the biotechnology for cleaner extractions to different planets. For comparison, the Arctic has harsh conditions and some planets have those similar characteristics. I’m always thinking of the future directions of where we can go and where we will go.”

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