Erika Milczek laughed when she was asked if—during her days as a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga undergraduate—she could have imagined one day running her own company.
“No, I thought I was going to be a professor and teach. I would have loved that,” said Milczek, who graduated from UTC in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, “but I’m glad I got on this path. I’ve had a wonderful time and get to work with phenomenal colleagues.”
Milczek, the founder and chief executive officer of Curie Co, a life science company that engineers enzymes to replace banned chemicals with sustainable ingredients in everyday consumer goods, will be honored with the 2021 Outstanding Young Alumni Award at the UTC Office of Development and Alumni Affairs’ Legends and Leaders Award dinner on April 7 in the University Center Tennessee Room.
The Outstanding Young Alumni Award is one of the most prestigious honors presented to a UTC graduate, recognizing alumni 40 years of age or younger who have made significant contributions to their community.
Erika Milczek, ’05
2021 Outstanding Young Alumni Award
Milczek said Curie Co and other industrial biotech companies are researching new technologies and modalities to create clean, sustainable components that improve product shelf-life.
“We have decided to focus on looking at the antimicrobial market to develop sustainably-derived replacements for preservatives,” she explained.
“The reason that we focus on replacing a petrochemical with the biomaterial is because biomaterials are sustainable, whereas petrochemicals are coming from the oil and gas industry. We have plenty of oil and gas today, but at some point in time we’re going to run out.”
Before founding Curie Co, Milczek worked as a process chemist and enzyme engineer in the pharmaceutical industry. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Emory University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Chemistry Department at Princeton University.
Milczek came to UTC after attending Fayette Academy in Somerville, Tennessee, a rural community near Memphis. Although she initially envisioned a pre-med path when she started college, chemistry won her over during her time at the University.
“I had the opportunity to do summer undergraduate research for two years and several semesters during the academic year and I absolutely fell in love with organic chemistry,” she said. “I had a great time being in the lab and doing research, and I had a wonderful mentor and advisor in Dr. Kyle Knight.”
Knight, who taught organic chemistry at UTC for 23 years, passed away in 2020.
“He was energetic and enthusiastic,” Milczek continued, “and his love of chemistry really came across. And the environment in the summertime in the chemistry department was just so special with lots of undergraduates doing research together; there was a lot of camaraderie.
“Being in the lab and doing research made me realize that I wanted to go to grad school for chemistry and do research for my career.”
Milczek said she has made numerous returns to campus since her undergraduate days. This time, her visit includes being recognized for career accomplishments.
“It’s both flattering and heartwarming that I’m still in their thoughts because they had such an impact on my career trajectory at a very early age,” she said. “Your career defines your life in so many ways because we spend so much time at work, and they were a huge part of my falling in love with research and science.
“The fact that they still think about me and nominated me is both an honor and humbling.”