If the 1970s and ’80s were the Renaissance of advanced polymer discovery, we are now living through a Dark Ages. The reason for such persistent stagnation in the field is relatively straightforward: Virtually all polymers are based on petrochemicals, and that set of molecules has been all but exhausted.
This lack of progress in advanced polymers has major downstream implications on fields like aerospace and hypersonics. These sectors “[are] really pushing material boundaries right to the limit,” Cambium CEO Simon Waddington said in a recent interview.
Cambium, a startup founded in 2020 by Waddington and COO Stephan Herrera, wants to reinvigorate advanced materials development for defense, aerospace, automotive and more by mining the vast and complex world of biological systems. The company isn’t necessarily making anything in biology — in a fermenter, say — but through traditional chemistry, via a discovery platform that acts as a “molecule-to-machine” innovator. This platform includes a computational program that can mine biology for molecules and facilities to make the composite and test it in the real world.
“We need to be able to go right back to the molecule, look at what the problem is, redesign molecules from the ground up — but with manufacturing in mind,” Waddington said. “Then we need to actually make those molecules, we need to test them, we need to go into proof of concept and go all the way down.”
Cambium kickstarted with an early collaboration with the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, headquartered in China Lake, California, on bio-based, high-temperature composite materials to help make aircraft, ships, submarines and spacecraft more fire-resistant. These thermal protection systems were put to the test in a live ignition of the wing of a medium-sized UAV, and Cambium found they far outperformed other available materials.
Since then, the company has expanded to three main lines of business, Waddington said. The first is the high-temperature, lightweight polymers just mentioned, which could be suitable for UAVs, eVTOLs or battery casings. The second line of business is an even higher temperature set of materials that almost look like ceramics; these are better suited to hypersonic applications, where temperatures can hit extremes. The final area is emerging domains, like protection against lasers for satellites, eyes and other applications.
To continue developing these materials, Cambium just closed a $19 million Series A funding round led by 8VC, with participation from Veteran Ventures, GSBackers, Marlinspike, MVP Ventures, Gaingels, Kern Venture Fund, Jackson Moses (Founder, Silent Ventures), Vertical Capital and angel investors. The company has now raised over $27 million to-date, including an $8 million seed round in 2021.
Waddington said the funding will go toward building out facilities and to do some of the advanced materials demonstration trials, with the aim of moving to product revenues by 2025. While much of the company’s current revenue comes from research and development awards from U.S. government entities — including awards from bioMADE, the biomanufacturing arm of the DOD, and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering — Cambium is in talks with numerous commercial companies, including defense tech startups.
“We talk to all of them,” Waddington said. “And we will continue to do so because we do share exactly the same thesis, which is there’s a generational shift in the industrial base and that requires new ways of thinking.”
Cambium’s headcount will hit around twenty by Christmas, and Waddington hopes to double that number by the end of next year.