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Decarbonizing the chemicals industry
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It has now been over a decade since Marc Andreessen first proclaimed that Software Is Eating the World. The software singularity that we’ve lived through between then and now can make Andreessen’s statement seem self-evident. At the time, it wasn’t. In the before times, even tech stocks like Apple were viewed with skepticism, and many analysts were consistently predicting that another bubble was getting ready to burst. This can be difficult to remember reading a Substack article built on top of Stripe payment infrastructure on a 12th generation iPhone, but it’s true.
As the business sectors Andreessen highlighted continue to be digitized, it seems like software is indeed eating the world. Despite all this technological progress, there are important problems that software can’t solve. This list of problems includes everything in the actual world of atoms. You can’t eat or drink software, or use it for shelter. It won’t heal you if you get sick. Biology can.
The full proliferation of software happened roughly six decades after the start of the computer revolution. After generations of government funded research, the pieces finally came into place to build the infrastructure for the digital world that we now inhabit. Similarly, we just passed the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA. Since this breakthrough, biology has transformed into an information science concerned with reading, writing, and editing genetic programs. With these newfound capabilities, the question for the 21st century is: how much of the world can biology eat?
For Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt at Solugen, the answer is: a lot of it. To be more precise, they believe that it is possible to transform the entire petrochemical industry using biology. Their North Star is to make a distributed network of Bioforges capable of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and efficiently converting it into a stream of chemicals that will flow through the supply chains that power the modern industrial economy. So far, they’ve built an enzyme-powered chemical plant in Houston capable of producing a wide variety of chemical products. Solugen has now raised over $500M in private capital, and plans to break ground on several additional Bioforges in the coming years.
One of the problems that currently plagues synthetic biology is the disconnect between the abstract vision of the field to make everything with biology and a concrete plan for how to make this an economic reality. Early products in the Bioeconomy have struggled to scale and become financially competitive. While the vision of Solugen and the massive amount of capital they’ve raised can seem abstract, the business operates with extreme pragmatism. They are a synthetic biology company with a laser focus on the Y Combinator ethos of making something people want.
There has been some great analysis of Solugen already.provided a nice breakdown of the business strategy and market dynamics behind Solugen. This essay is not that. To better understand one of the fastest growing synthetic biology companies on the planet, I took a trip with Solugen's first investor—Seth Bannon of Fifty Years—to Houston to see how a Bioforge actually works in practice. Here, I want to share the story of how two scientists came up with this seemingly crazy idea, what they’ve built so far, and where they might take it next.
The idea behind Solugen was born in Texas, the home of America’s petrochemical empire. A poker game between a group of friends brought Gaurab and Sean together around the same table. It was probably a lot nerdier than it sounds. At the time, Gaurab was an MD/PhD student at UT Southwestern, and Sean was visiting from MIT where he was pursuing a PhD in chemical engineering.
As light-hearted conversation between scientists typically goes, they spent a lot of their time comparing notes on their thesis work. Early in to their initial discussion, they were both pleasantly surprised by the unlikely amount of overlap between their research despite working in totally different fields.
Gaurab was working in the lab of a pioneering cancer biologist named David Boothman. He wanted to understand the chemical pathways that caused cancer cells to pump out massive levels of reactive oxygen species. These molecules are the byproduct of normal metabolic processes in cells, but are known to accumulate at much higher levels in cancer. As their name implies, they are highly reactive and can cause cellular damage. Gaurab worked to develop cancer drugs that prevent cancer cells from cleaning up this mess.
Sean was approaching chemistry from an entirely different angle. He was obsessed with designing new metal catalysts for large-scale chemical reactions. For a quick refresher on chemistry, catalysts are chemicals that increase the rate of a reaction but aren’t consumed by it. In his unique brand of humor, he likes to say that he “made the surface of tungsten carbide behave like platinum—in only seven years!” What this actually means is that he was able to design a new catalyst that could be made out of extremely abundant materials instead of platinum, which is a much rarer noble metal.1
Gaurab and Sean started to connect threads between their projects. Cells had evolved highly efficient molecular machines (enzymes) capable of producing massive amounts of commercially valuable chemicals. Cancer cells even produced too much of it! What if these enzymes could be combined with the metal catalysts Sean had spent years learning to control? Could this transform the process of chemical production as we know it?
At this point, the foundation of Solugen was in place. Before moving further, Sean needed more convincing that this idea made any economic sense. As he likes to say, “math is free,” so before they did any prototyping they did some techno-economic analysis. In other words, they modeled out all of their assumptions about prices, theoretical catalyst performance, the requirements of a potential reactor, and the yields that would need to be achieved to build a chemical business with viable unit economics.
The numbers looked surprisingly good. It seemed possible to build a new type of chemical factory using biology. Importantly, they thought this new factory—or Bioforge—could deliver chemicals at a lower cost to customers, and produce them with a lower carbon footprint. Better for customers, better for the world.
Next, they needed money to build a prototype. Since Sean was wrapping up his PhD at MIT, they decided to enter the MIT $100k entrepreneurship competition in 2016. The short blog post from their entry shows the boldest form of the Solugen vision: “We use enzyme engineering to convert CO2 into high value chemicals.”
This story isn’t from a Hollywood script, and the Solugen team didn’t win the competition and ride off into the sunset. Instead, they earned $10,000. Perhaps more importantly, they also received inbound interest from their first potential customer. The product that they had pitched developing was a mixture of gluconic acid and peroxide that they called Bioperoxide. The owner of a float spa in Dallas had seen their MIT pitch and told them that if they could make Bioperoxide he would buy it.2
At this point they had the first real test for their idea. Could they actually produce Bioperoxide and sell it at a profit with only $10,000? They rented a small lab space behind the Dallas airport and got to work. Using PVC pipes and other materials they bought from Home Depot, they built the world’s first Bioforge.
They loaded the Bioperoxide into Sean’s Subaru and drove it over to their customer. At this point, Solugen was a revenue generating chemicals company, and Gaurab and Sean thought that it was the coolest thing in the world. While Solugen was far from being a sexy tech startup, this initial traction motivated Sean to quit his job and commit to taking the business as far as it could go. As Gaurab’s medical training came to a close, the two co-founders set out to rapidly scale their business.
Scaling the Bioforge
Gaurab and Sean looked to investors for an infusion of cash to build a larger Bioforge. As an early-stage investor with a deep conviction to use technology as a force for good, Seth Bannon from Fifty Years saw the potential of Solugen. The combination of a planetary-scale vision for good with extreme scrappiness—PVC prototype and all—and commitment to immediate value creation convinced him that the business could be something special.
With more substantial capital, progress accelerated. Now, Solugen was able to expand their lab facilities for enzyme and catalyst engineering, and to start building the second generation of the Bioforge. Over time, this deep integration of the entire stack—from research to production scale—has become one of the three most important superpowers that Solugen possesses. Because they own the entire process, they can quickly test each new component at production scale. A newly engineered enzyme can seem promising in the lab, but prove to be useless in a larger reactor. Solugen can learn this faster than anybody else.
The second Solugen superpower is a maniacal focus on delivering customer value. Another Seanism here: “you aren’t a real business if you aren’t making money.” From the earliest days of driving around Dallas to deliver Bioperoxide to customers, the Solugen team takes the process of actually selling the outputs of the Bioforge extremely seriously. This focus only deepened when Solugen went through the Y Combinator accelerator—which in part explains why the team talks about customer experience like a SaaS company despite the fact that they sell chemicals.
Here’s an example of this customer obsession on display: Solugen bought the chemicals their Bioforge would ultimately produce and immediately started building a sales relationship with their end customers. By priming their distribution pipeline, all of the chemicals they planned to make were spoken for by the time they were produced. Reputation matters to them. They aim for the most seamless customer experience possible.3
Zooming out, this obsession extends to every facet of the business. No stone is left unturned, and no detail is too small to overlook. This meta-skill is their third major superpower—an intense commitment to the details. Running a successful chemicals business comes with an absurd amount of operational complexity. Doing this in conjunction with an R&D lab is no small feat.
To start, where can you find a location to even build a Bioforge? Solugen is headquartered at the site of an exploded wax distillery in Houston, which comes with insanely low rent and a tax benefit for repurposing the facility. Where do you house your R&D lab? Directly on site to increase team cohesion. Now while building the lab and the Bioforge, build out the customer network and distribution pipeline—which needs to be a bit more advanced at this point than relying on Sean’s Subaru—and you start to have all of the moving pieces required for Solugen to run.
This all only works because Gaurab and Sean are complete wonks who live and breath this business. It’s really worth spending a few minutes paging through the How This Works section of the Solugen website. Once you’ve looked at how the utilities and feedstock flow into the Bioforge, and the number of steps involved in flowing out a continuous stream of chemical products, think about this: Sean has committed the product label of every single component of this system to memory.
Building a company like Solugen requires giving a damn. In a recent interview, Jerry Seinfeld reflected on the effort he put into producing one of the most successful television shows of all time: “The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life." This is what it felt like when I walked around the Bioforge and listened to the amount of passion and thought put into every detail. No matter where the company goes from here, Gaurab and Sean will never have to regret not committing deeply enough to their craft.
For two young scientists directly out of their training, growing Solugen has required a rapid shift towards highly complex entrepreneurial execution. Throughout this process, Solugen has honed three critical superpowers:
Deep integration — the creation of a tight-knit feedback loop between the lab and the production reactor. Here, no single scientific insight shines, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Customer obsession — despite selling chemicals, Solugen brings the YC ethos to bear on their entire sales process with the level of focus of a consumer SaaS company.
Intense commitment to the details — in an industry with considerable physical and operational complexity, Solugen works to nail every detail.
The thing is, Solugen’s current operation is a warmup lap.
The present and future of the Bioforge
So, what is Solugen currently doing, and where do they want to go next? The current version of the Bioforge doesn’t use CO2 as feedstock—the raw input. Instead, it runs on four inputs:
Sugars. (In the form of corn syrup, which is effectively a carbon sink.)
Catalysts. (Primarily gold catalysts)
Solugen claims to have achieved 90% yield for their reactions. This is an extremely important detail, because it is one of the core differentiators relative to other chemical production technologies. Andreessen astutely observed that software would be a powerful technological wedge to disrupt incumbent industries. Here, biology is the wedge for Solugen. It seems that enzymes are orders of magnitude more efficient chemical producers than even our most efficient manmade processes.
Enzymes don’t just deliver better yields. They also make it possible to run the reactions at much lower temperatures with different catalysts. The contrast here is fairly stark. Reactions at petrochemical plants can require temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. For Solugen, the “goldilocks zone” (credit to Gaurab) with a gold catalyst is only 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Clearly, eliminating waste from the process is also a pretty big win. It’s tough to fully diligence the yield of the enzymatic reactions taking place inside of a 60 foot tall bubble column, so for now we’ll have to trust Solugen’s numbers. In terms of waste, the petrochemical industry is responsible for a third of global carbon emissions, and the giant plumes emanating from all of the chemical plants surrounding the Houston area serve as a visceral reminder. You can smell it, and practically taste it.
At Solugen, you can’t.
The climate benefits have a tertiary impact on Solugen’s sales strategy. First, they compete on price and customer experience. By the time orders are reviewed by a Chief Sustainability Officer, it is just a question of increasing order volumes. The reduction of temperatures and waste probably has the biggest impact on hiring. I met a Solugen employee who had previously experienced an acid burn working in the petrochemical industry. Solugen is able to recruit top chemical talent in the Houston area by offering a safer place to work.
Solugen is able to hire talent from the petrochemical industry because they are effectively operating a large chemical plant—albeit redesigned and supercharged by enzymes. The sheer physical footprint of the facility was different from any lab or company I’ve visited.
In some ways, this is one of the largest representations of the future of synthetic biology that I’ve been fairly critical of. In Atoms are Local, I wrote:
The future of the Bioeconomy doesn’t just have to be about industrial scale fermentation. Biology can make practically anything, practically anywhere. How do we learn to partner with that capacity more effectively?
I’m excited by a future where biotechnology is much more personal, and production is much more local. That is what is so beautiful about what we’ve done with DNA sequencing—where miniature nanopore sequencers the size of a laptop dongle enable people to measure living systems in a new way, wherever they are in the world. We have Personal Computers, and even pocket computers. As Drew Endy likes to say, what will the Personal Biomaker look like?
Solugen splits the difference between these two visions in several important ways. To start, they are selling chemicals made using biology, not bioproducts.4 Being in the chemicals business, it makes a lot of sense to piggyback on the generations of infrastructure and process knowledge that we already have. Solugen was founded by a biologist and a chemical engineer—this blend of disciplines is evident in every detail of the company.
And importantly, size is relative. In the chemicals industry, it is routine for companies to build “world-scale” facilities for the production of individual molecules. Economies of scale at the planetary level are necessary to make a profit given the yields and inefficiencies. Complex supply chains with many intermediate buyers and sellers then shuffle these molecules all around the world.
The Solugen Bioforge is much smaller than these facilities, and much more modular. The current facility can produce four chemical products, with a total of 42 products in various stages of R&D. The ultimate goal is to build a library of enzymes and catalysts that could make 90% of chemicals by 2030.
For the chemicals industry, Solugen is an example of distributed biomanufacturing. The vision for expansion is to build a distributed network of Bioforges where chemicals are produced in a ten hour delivery radius from where they are used. Like every other detail at Solugen, this number wasn’t randomly pulled out of a hat. A ten hour radius means that chemicals could be delivered with a five hour drive each direction—falling into the purview of day cab trucks. This would significantly reduces costs, and improve the lives of semi drivers.
Believing a better future is possible
Ours is a time of change. Industrial processes have triggered global changes to the climate that our civilization was designed to inhabit. A pandemic, a war, and escalating geopolitical tensions have exposed the fragility of our supply chains. Despite considerable consternation, our gridlocked political system and general aversion to building have hindered progress towards meaningful solutions. What to do?
I think that the answer is to plant seeds of change. All big things start small. Gaurab and Sean started Solugen with $10,000 dollars and a belief that a better future is possible. What started as a DIY chemical rig made out of PVC pipes is now a much larger Bioforge that generates more than $100 million in annual revenue.
We have the tools to do this—we just need to aspire to do more with them. We can build a beautiful future powered by biology and computation. We can use the tools of capitalism and business to deliver more innovation than fifteen minute grocery deliveries.5 We need to collectively dream bigger—and this starts with believing that a better future is possible.
It’s early in Solugen’s journey to transform the chemical industry using biology. Like the rest of the future, it’s uncertain how far they will get. I chose to visit Houston to better understand why this business was growing so quickly. I left with an appreciation for the level of commitment that Gaurab and Sean are bringing to the craft of scientific entrepreneurship.
Solugen has an ambitious vision for planetary change powered by biology, coupled to a pragmatic focus on delivering customer value. It’s a bold experiment for a better future, and I’ll be rooting for them.
Thanks for reading this essay about Solugen. As a disclaimer: I received no funding or compensation from Solugen or other parties for writing this essay, and am not an investor in the company. If I was, I would tell you! If you don’t want to miss upcoming essays, you should consider subscribing for free to have them delivered to your inbox:
Consider joining me at SynBioBeta this year to learn more about what’s happening in synthetic biology! You can use the code H7TGP_JC10 for a 10% discount.
As always, thanks to my wonderful editor Kelda.
Until next time! 🧬
As you can see in Sean’s thesis, the overarching rationale for this work was to make the chemical industry more sustainable. Before ever founding Solugen, Sean had demonstrated that he had the temperament to commit to seven years of deeply technical work without losing sight of a much larger vision for the world.
You may be asking yourself: what is a float spa? A float spa is a business that offers access to sensory deprivation floats—based on the isolation tanks invented by early psychonauts. While it seems like a ridiculous idea, I would highly recommend trying it. Having spent a considerable amount of time floating, I can attest to the fact that it is a unique cognitive experience and a valuable source of ideas.
This is highly atypical in the chemicals industry, where most providers have a net promoter score low enough to rival Comcast.
I retain my skepticism that vertical scaling of reactors makes the most sense for cell-based products and biomaterials.
A note here for prospective founders with ambitions to build big things in the physical world using biology—take a look at the early-stage firms that were willing to partner with a company like Solugen. Fifty Years, Refactor Capital and Cantos joined together for the Seed round and have continually supported the company’s growth. Many excellent firms have played a role in funding and supporting Solugen from the Series A and onward. At Not Boring Capital, we also aim to partner with founders tackling hard problems, and work to help them tell their story.