Young Shareholder Seeks Clean Extraction Method for Rare Earth Elements

Michael Martinez Starts Biotech Business, Wins Arctic Youth Award

Storyknife, July/August 2021 edition

Michael Martinez is a young Calista Corporation Shareholder on a mission to develop a clean method of extracting some little known but critical minerals.

As a chemistry major at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Michael is investigating rare earth elements, a class of metallic elements used in many high-tech devices. Like gold and copper, rare earth elements are in smart phones, TVs, electric vehicles, and other high-tech consumer products.

In recent decades, the production of rare earth elements has largely shifted to countries with lax environmental laws. Michael’s feet are planted in two worlds right now—the lab and the business startup sector—to find a clean extraction method for rare earth elements.

Michael Martinez, University of Alaska-Anchorage chemistry major. Photo by James Evans/UAA


This spring, Michael won the High North Young Entrepreneur award for his biotech startup company, Arctic Biotech Oath, at the High North Dialogue conference in Norway. Shortly after that, he was honored as the “Alaskan of the Week” on the U.S. Senate floor by Senator Dan Sullivan.

Michael recently talked to Storyknife about his company and his research goals.

How did you get interested in studying chemistry and rare earth elements?

A degree in chemistry allows for a greater understanding of what is happening from the surface level all the way to the atomic level. Chemistry drives new discoveries and new industries like the rising green energy sector.

The Rare Earth Element project and research began when I met Dr. Brandon Briggs for the first time in the summer of 2018. He is my research advisor. The research involves microbiology, and the biotechnology aspect piqued my interest. Dr. Briggs is an associate professor in the UAA Department of Biological Sciences and Director of the Advanced Instrumentation for Microbiome Studies (AIMS) Core Facility.

Tell us about your company?

Arctic Biotech Oath is a green biotechnology startup company originating from Alaska. We are using biotechnology from microorganisms to extract rare earth elements at a pH value that is similar to water. In the years to come, I see us as a leader in biomining.

Rock samples prepared for rare earth element extraction at UAA laboratory. Photo by James Evans/UAA

We aim to grow and collaborate across the circumpolar northern countries including Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Opportunities in the Arctic are opening, and for Alaska, this opens opportunities for a green energy sector, more jobs, and showing Alaska can be a leader in biotechnology.

Dr. Briggs is important in moving the laboratory operations and funding for the research development. I am quickly learning and applying skills in finance, business and legal. I am having fun seeing Arctic Biotech Oath achieve new levels.

Have Yup’ik cultural values helped you reach your goals?

My grandmother, the late Anna Marie Yunak from Kotlik, shared a lot of stories and lessons with me growing up. I still carry those lessons with me to this day and the most important one was to listen to others.

Listening means actually paying attention to what is being said and acting on it with purpose. I feel that has been a key value which has allowed me to grow quickly. I have listened to my mentors such as Dr. Brandon Briggs, Dr. Holly Martinson and more who have spoken with me. This helps to drive innovative ideas that are needed to make breakthroughs.

What support have you received from Calista and others?

Calista has been a great supporter in highlighting the work that I am doing and providing scholarships toward my undergraduate tuition.

My parents Mary Martinez (maiden name Yunak) & Eufemio “Memo” Martinez, my siblings and grandmother have supported my pursuit towards applied science. I would also like to say thank you to the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program which I have been with since 2011. Thank you to the Alaska Space Grant Program for research funding and support from its staff.

I greatly encourage Alaska Native students to pursue degrees in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) such as chemistry, and know that if I can do it, they surely can too. We are entering a time where there are more resources and more people willing to help. I believe we will see more indigenous enterprises rise up in the years to come and Arctic Biotech Oath will help lead the way.