28 December 2023

From a Ph.D. in Biochemistry to Director of Technology at Phytolon

Interview with Dr. Wissam Mansour, who lives in Rama, is married, and a father of two sons.

A biotechnologist by profession and Director of Technology at Phytolon, a company offering natural colors for the food industry, produced through the fermentation of baking yeast. In his role, he oversees the company’s research and development activities and leads part of the company’s strategic collaborations.

Tell us about your professional journey, Wissam.
I joined Phytolon as the Director of Technology a year and a half ago. In my role, I am responsible for the company’s extensive research and development activities aimed at improving the products and enabling its market penetration. Additionally, I lead the research and development activities in part of the company’s strategic collaborations, such as with Ginkgo Bioworks, one of the leading biotechnology companies in the U.S.
Before Phytolon, I spent 7.5 years at AnimaBiotech, a company that focuses on the discovery and development of drugs intervening in the translation process of specific proteins inside cells. There, I started as the first employee, managing projects from the idea stage to animal trails. I established some of the technological units contributing to the company’s foundation. I was involved in collaboration agreements with global pharmaceutical companies under my leadership, such as Eli Lilly and Company and Takeda.

What about your academic background?
I began my studies at Tel-Hai College, earning a bachelor’s in biotechnology and environmental engineering. I then pursued a second degree in medical sciences at Tel Aviv University. My research work was conducted at the Amalia Biron Research Institute of Thrombosis and Hemostasis under the guidance of Prof. Uri Seligsohn. During this time, I published several scientific articles and developed a pre-pregnancy screening method for a hereditary blood disorder.
I completed my Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2015 at the Technion, supervised by Prof. Michael Glickman. My research focused on the mechanism of protein degradation in cells, resulting in breakthrough scientific articles. Throughout my academic journey, I received various awards and grants, including the VATAT scholarship for outstanding Arab doctoral students.

What were the main challenges you faced in your career, and how did you deal with them?
Naturally, during one’s career, you encounter many challenges. One of the initial challenges was managing a team of scientists without prior management experience, requiring me to step out of my comfort zone and develop new skills. Another, as a young father of two, was balancing family life and work, especially with long commutes from the north to the center of the country. I dealt with this by careful time planning.
As a graduate of the Faculty of Biology, what significant tools, knowledge, or experiences did you gain during your studies that contributed to your success in the research and biotechnology field? Additionally, what makes the faculty a unique place that significantly contributes to building a successful career in this field?

One of the main tools I acquired at the faculty is the opportunity for student internships. One of the significant advantages of studying at the faculty is the exposure to international laboratories/teams at leading universities worldwide. This exposure allowed me to explore the forefront of technology and engage with top scientists, contributing to both my professional and personal development.
Furthermore, the ability to connect your knowledge to the “outside world” is crucial. The faculty also facilitates the integration of students from different countries, exposing me to peers from diverse backgrounds, which influenced my career and provided tools that helped me develop deep business and personal relationships.

What does the future hold for the biotech industry? How do you see the future of the biotech industry, and what trends or challenges are facing the industry in the coming years?

The biotech industry offers solutions to several major challenges in our world today.
One key trend is the use of fermentation to create natural ingredients for the food industry. For example, Phytolon offers natural food colors produced through biotechnology. These natural food colors provide a high-quality, economical, and sustainable solution for the food and beverage industry, serving as a viable alternative to synthetic and natural food colors currently in the market.

Another trend is the use of biotechnological tools for disease treatment. For instance, Vertex recently received approval for a drug based on the CRISPR gene-editing system to treat a hereditary blood disorder.
Interestingly, biotechnology is advancing faster than regulation, presenting the challenge of bringing the most advanced technology to the market and overcoming regulatory barriers.

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