Professor Colin Fricker, microbiologist and Chief Scientific Officer at Oculer Ltd on problem solving and the ongoing threat of foodborne infections
Professor Colin Fricker’s microbiology career spans 45 years and has a particular focus on the development and implementation of rapid, easy to use methods applied to the food and water industries. He obtained a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Reading in 1987, having been awarded the WH Pierce Prize for outstanding contributions to microbiology the year before.
He was Microbiology Manager at Thames Water in London from 1990 to 2000, developing improved methods for water testing including Colilert-18, the world’s largest selling test for E.coli in water. Colin has edited five books, published more than ninety peer-reviewed publications and has contributed to the development of a wide variety of microbiological procedures used for environmental analysis in the food and pharmaceutical industries.
Today he is Chief Scientific Officer at Ballina’s Oculer Ltd, a role he has held since 2015, and he is also Managing Director of the UK-based CRF Consulting which specialises in environmental microbiology.
As Colin explains, his role at Oculer primarily covers research and development (R&D) and technical support around the company’s Greenlight technology, which offers automated assays to measure microbial contamination.
Greenlight technology is ideally suited for use in small to medium sized laboratories, Colin says, and is based upon the use of an oxygen depletion sensor. Systems based on oxygen depletion offer a number of benefits, including a reduction in the likelihood of product recalls. As they are fully enclosed, a trained microbiologist is not needed to perform the test thereby reducing lab costs for companies that use external laboratories for testing.
The R&D function of Colin’s role covers the development of new assays for use on the Greenlight system, he says. “Much of this work is focused on the development of novel and proprietary culture media that facilitate detection of a wide range of microorganisms. My role also includes the investigation of potential improvements to sensors for oxygen and carbon dioxide as well as other products of microbial metabolism.”
It is a diverse role and one that is not without its challenges, as he explains. “The development of novel culture media that are specific enough to be used in growth-based assays is a challenge in itself but ensuring that the components required for achieving very high specificity of the assays are stable at room temperature can sometimes be difficult. However, when a new assay is completed and validated the hours spent researching methods of improving stability all seem worth it.”
The role also allows Colin to collaborate externally with academic colleagues on aspects of assay design and sensor manufacture and presentation, a process he greatly enjoys. He also assists customers in finding solutions to the challenges that they face. “Interaction with customers is an integral part of the role and one which I enjoy very much. Helping a customer solve a problem is without doubt the most satisfying aspect of the job.”
When it comes to the food industry at large, Colin believes that foodborne infections and intoxications continue to be the main challenges it faces.
“The increasing number of immunocompromised consumers will continue to present a challenge to food producers particularly with the increased demand for ready-to-eat foods.” He also points out that growing consumer demand for fresh, preservative-free products may also present a challenge, particularly in terms of product spoilage.
The solution, he believes, lies in better monitoring of processes and an awareness that further, new challenges may present themselves in the future.
“Improved monitoring of the efficacy of processing techniques will undoubtedly help reduce product spoilage and faster and more reliable monitoring is required,” Colin says, but adds a note of caution. “The emergence of new foodborne pathogens will always be a threat and we should not forget that it is less than fifty years since Campylobacter was identified as a common cause of food poisoning. It remains the most commonly reported cause of foodborne infection in the UK and Ireland but who knows what is to come?”
Where were you born?
I was born and grew up in Southampton, England. I moved to Reading to undertake my PhD studies and continue to live there with my family.
What are your hobbies?
I am an avid watcher of cricket and rugby and enjoy time at home with friends and family. Food, both cooking it and eating it, is a big part of life!
Is there a mantra you live by?
Don’t worry about things that you can’t change.