Late last year, Solugen, a startup using synthetic biology to take hydrocarbons out of the chemicals industry, decided against pursuing a new round of funding that would have valued the company at over $1 billion, TechCrunch has learned.
Instead, the Houston-based bio-manufacturing company raised an internal round of roughly $30 million from existing investors and continued working on its latest project — a new bio-based manufacturing process for a high-value specialty chemical that can act as an anti-corrosive agent.
That work represents a potentially lucrative new product line for the company and charts a course for a host of other businesses that are refashioning the basic building blocks of life in an attempt to supplant chemistry with biology for manufacturing and production.
If Solugen can get its high-value chemical into commercial production, the company can follow the path that sustainable tech companies like Tesla have mastered — moving from a pricy specialty product into the mass market. And rather than over-promise and underdeliver, Solugen wanted to get the product line right first before raising big bucks, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.
As the world looks to move away from oil and its byproducts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down or reverse global climate change, the chemicals industry is in the crosshairs as a huge target for disruption. Vehicle electrification solves only one part of the oil problem. The extractive industry doesn’t just produce fuel, but also the chemicals that make up most of the products that defined consumer goods in the twentieth century.
Chemicals are everywhere and they’re a huge business.
Companies like Zymergen raised hundreds of millions of dollars last year to develop industrial applications for synthetic biology, and they’re not alone. Startups including Geltor, Impossible Foods, Ginkgo Bioworks, Lygos, Novomer and Perfect Day have all raised significant amounts of capital to reduce the environmental footprint of food, chemicals, ingredients and plastics through synthetic biology.
Some of these companies are seeing early success in food replacements and ingredients, but the promise of biologically based chemicals have been elusive — until now.
Solugen’s new product will produce glucaric acid, a tough-to-make chemical that can be used in water treatment facilities and as an anti-corrosive agent — and the company can make it with a zero carbon (or potentially carbon negative) manufacturing process, according to Solugen co-founder and chief technology officer, Sean Hunt.
The glucaric acid from Solugen is cheaper to produce and more environmentally friendly than existing phosphonates that are used for water treatment — and the company has the benefit of competing against chemicals manufacturers in China.
Given the continuing tensions between the two countries, the U.S. is looking to make more high-value products — including chemicals — domestically, and Solugen’s technology is a good way forward to have home-grown supplies of critical materials.
Solugen still intends to raise more capital, the company just wanted to wait until its latest production plant for the acid came online, according to Hunt.
It’s also the fruit of years of planning. The two co-founders, Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, first realized they could potentially use the technology they’d developed to make specialty chemicals back in 2017, according to Hunt. But first the company had to make the hydrogen peroxide as a precursor chemical, Hunt said.
“It’s advantageous for us to focus on this,” said Hunt. “As we scale, we can enter more commodity-type markets down the road.”
It’s all part of the notable strides the entire industry is making, said Hunt. “Synthetic biology has really made significant strides,” he said. “We have our commercial plant coming online this summer [and it proves] synthetic biology has gotten to the point where we can compete on price and performance.”
So the capital infusion will come as the company gets closer to the completion of these commercial scale facilities.
“It’s not like we were sitting on a term sheet and we said no,” Hunt said. “We want to make sure that we are hitting the milestones and the goals at a commensurate pace which is this year. I’m extremely bullish and optimistic of 2021.”
Solugen’s co-founder sees the path that his company is on as one that other startups working in the synthetic biology space will pursue to bring profitable products to market at the higher end before competing with more sustainable versions of commodity chemicals.
“How do you start a company that has this level of capital intensity?” Hunt asked. “You can start in the fine chemicals space where everything sells for tens to hundreds of dollars per pound. For us, glucaric acid is that specialty chemical and then we will do commodity.”