Solugen, a company that has established itself with a goal no less lofty than decarbonizing a large portion of the petrochemical industry, may be the first legitimate multi-million dollar company to start in a methamphetamine lab.
When company co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt began looking for a laboratory to test their process for enzyme detection.When making hydrogen peroxide, they only had a small $ 10,000 grant from MIT, which was supposed to pay their wages and cover rent and lab equipment.
Chakrabarti, who now jokingly calls himself. “The Heisenberg of Hydrogen Peroxide” says the lab spaces they saw at the beginning were too expensive, so through a friend of a friend, he and Hunt searched for a leasing lab space at an airport facility. from Houston for $ 150 per month.
Hunt and Chakrabarti refined their manufacturing process between burners and round-bottom flasks, using a fermentation based on Solugen’s proprietary enzyme made from genetically engineered yeast cells to produce hydrogen peroxide.
“In 2016 I went to visit Solugen’s headquarters in Houston, They were subletting a small part of a larger lab and it was one of the laziest labs I had ever seen, but the founders of Solugen liked it because the rent was low, “recalls Solugen seed investor Seth Bannon, a partner. Investment Firm Founder Fifty Years “Sean and Gaurab were incredibly impressive. They had their prototype reactor working and they were already selling 100% of its capacity, so we invested.”
Creating a process that can produce thousands of tons of chemicals, without relying on oil, would be a very important step in the fight against global climate change. And Solugen says it has done exactly that, while getting the chemical industry to subsidize its development.
The chemical industry is responsible for 10% of global energy consumption and 30% of industrial energy demand, while also contributing 20% of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Global Efficiency Intelligence website. .
As the world begins to grapple with the effects of global climate change, reducing emissions from industry will be critically important to ensure that human activity does not change irrevocably and catastrophically.
As columnist Ramez Naam wrote on TechCrunch:
Our harder The climate problems, which are large and lack obvious solutions, are agriculture (and deforestation, its main side effect) and industry. Together these are 45% of global carbon emissions. And the solutions are rare.
Agriculture and land use account for 24% of all human emissions. That’s about as much as electricity, and twice as much as all the world’s passenger cars combined.
Industry – steel, cement, and manufacturing – accounts for 21% of human emissions – one and a half times more than all the world’s cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes combined.
Greenhouse gas emissions are just one of the dangers associated with the petrochemical industry’s approach to production. The processes by which chemicals are made are also incredibly volatile, and the work is dangerous for both employees and the communities in which these plants operate.
Last week, a chemical plant explosion led to one of the worst fires in the city’s history. Firefighters in the city spent six days trying to contain a chemical fire that has burned 11 storage tanks run by the Intercontinental Terminals Company.
“They are moving exposed chemicals into the environment, and those chemicals are not designed to be transported that way,” said Francisco Sanchez, the county’s deputy emergency management coordinator. The Houston Chronicle.
By contrast, the Solugen process is only slightly more dangerous than brewing.
In the years since Bannon visited the company in its first lab, Solugen has built a working production facility capable of producing enough hydrogen peroxide to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the company.
In addition to its current mobile manufacturing facility, a 1,000-square-foot skid-mounted mini-plant, Solugen is using $ 13.5 million in new investor financing to build a new 2,500-size modular facility that will produce 5,000 tons of hydrogen peroxide per year.
That new money came from the mutual fund. Founders Fund (co-founded by controversial libertarian investor Peter Thiel), Fifty Years, and Y Combinator.
Solugen’s secret sauce is its ability to create inexpensive oxidase enzymes that can be combined with simple sugars to make oxidation chemicals, accounting for about half of the global $ 4.3 trillion chemical industry.
The companies’ bioreactors have been specifically designed for the chemicals they produce, but the real innovation is looking at enzymes as a tool for oxidation chemists.
Companies can now engineer these enzymes thanks to advances in computational biology and the new ability of biochemists to engineer DNA, says Chakrabarti.
Solugen uses CRISPR gene editing technologies to modify yeast cells. He has identified a certain transcription factor that acts as an accelerator to produce the enzyme that the Solugen process requires. Delivery courier ribonucleic acid bypasses most of the typical processes if a cell forces the cell to devote most of its function to enzyme production. The company then uses a contract research organization to make the enzyme cheaply.
Companies have also reduced the cost of manufacturing these special enzymes. ““The revolution is the commodification of biofabrication, specifically the production of enzymes,” he says. “Instead of our enzymes costing $ 1,000 per kg… It’s $ 1 to $ 10 per kg.”
Once Solugen proves that the new facility can work, the only problem is scale, according to Chakrabarti. “We use enzyme technologies to create chemical mini-mills. [and] each mini mill can make 5,000 tons of products, ”says Chakrabarti.
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And for every ton of product that Solugen makes and sells, it’s the equivalent of removing six tons of carbon from the atmosphere, says Chakrabarti.
Oil and gas companies have already signed contracts and are ordering the company’s products to the tune of several million in sales.
“It’s a good way to finance ourselves and finance the demise of the oil and gas industry,” Chakrabarti says of the company’s sales to its initial customers. “They give us money and allow us to go after other chemicals that would have been petroleum-based … Our ultimate goal is to kill them.”