Erika Milczek was at a salon having her hair done when the idea for her company crystallized.
➤ Title: CEO, Curie Co.
➤ Funding: $1.6 million
➤ Investors and funders: Breakout Labs, Cantos, National Science Foundation, and various angel investors
The stylist had applied a hair-smoothing treatment called a Brazilian Blowout and was drying Milczek’s hair. An odor rose, and Milczek’s eyes began to water.
“I recognized the smell. It was formaldehyde,” she says.
After her appointment was done, Milczek researched the product and learned that the blow-dryer’s heat was causing the product to release vaporized formaldehyde, exposing her and the stylist to the carcinogenic, irritating compound in the unventilated salon. Milczek was taken aback—as a chemist, she’d always worked with formaldehyde under a fume hood while wearing gloves, safety glasses, and other personal protective gear. The European Union last year proposed to restrict the use of formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing substances in consumer products.
And that’s when it dawned on her: there’s a market for replacing chemicals that are being banned and doing it in a way so that consumers don’t have to pay more for products. Milczek next began identifying ingredients in consumer products that were under scrutiny or banned by retailers, the US Food and Drug Administration, and other regulatory bodies. She saw opportunity, telling herself: “I am a chemist. I can come up with better solutions.”
Milczek founded Curie Co. in 2017, and although she didn’t tackle the Brazilian Blowout, she decided to go after other markets, starting with antimicrobial chemicals. The firm engineers biodegradable, biocidal enzymes to replace some of the more controversial types of antimicrobials, such as parabens, that Amazon, Target, Walmart, and other large retailers are barring from certain consumer products. Milczek explains, “Using Curie Co.’s proprietary enzyme-engineering platform, we take enzymes that exist in nature and give them the properties that we want to mimic” in antimicrobial materials, like preservatives.
It was these scientific underpinnings and Curie Co.’s potential to solve critical problems that attracted seed money from Breakout Labs, says Hemai Parthasarathy, scientific director of the program, which is part of the philanthropic Thiel Foundation. Curie Co. currently operates within Johnson & Johnson’s JLabs life sciences business incubator in New York City.
Dale E. Edmondson, the Emory University emeritus professor of biochemistry who was Milczek’s graduate school adviser, says Curie Co.’s work has implications for industrial processes and the synthesis of new molecules. According to Edmondson, who is a consultant to the company, the firm’s technology has potential applications in the pharmaceutical, food chemistry, and cosmetics industries.
Milczek, who hails from a rural town outside Memphis, Tennessee, fell for chemistry in high school. But her heart was set on premed studies when she entered the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as an undergraduate. There, she participated in a summer undergraduate research program involving organometallic chemistry. The reaction development she did during that time, mainly with palladium catalysts, captured her imagination. “That was a career-defining opportunity,” Milczek says. She switched her major to chemistry.
As a second-year organic chemistry graduate student at Emory University, Milczek was deeply impressed by Edmondson’s bioinorganic chemistry course. “I went into his office, and I said, ‘I have to be an enzymologist!’ ” she recalls. Edmondson helped Milczek, who was his final graduate student, transfer from the chemistry lab she’d started at in her first 2 years at Emory into his.
Her background blending organic chemistry and enzymes helped her land a position in Merck & Co.’s biocatalysis group in Rahway, New Jersey, in 2012. There, she learned to determine whether a chemical transformation or a biocatalytic one is more practical for industrial applications such as commercial drug synthesis.
“That experience gave me the passion to go out and start my own company,” Milczek says. As she took the leap into entrepreneurship, Milczek also determined that Curie Co. would create materials for a world no longer reliant on fossil fuels as raw materials. “Scientists have an obligation to tackle the problems of our future,” she says.