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Chemistry start-ups on our radar

These 5 young chemistry-based firms from around the world could soon be grabbing headlines

by Melody M. Bomgardner
November 15, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 44


CrustaTec’s biopolymers remove dyes from water


The textile industry in developing regions is infamous for polluting rivers with wastewater laced with dye chemicals. Large manufacturers can install equipment such as reverse osmosis filters to remove the dyes, but that technology is out of reach for small textile producers in places like Guatemala.

María Isabel Amorín Cabrera thought another Guatemalan industry—shrimp farming—could provide a solution. As a researcher at the University of San Carlos, she studied potential uses of aquaculture by-products like shrimp shells as well as ways to treat aquaculture wastewater.

This photo is of CrustaTec leader María Isabel Amorín Cabrera.
Credit: María Isabel Amorín Cabrera
María Isabel Amorín Cabrera, founder of CrustaTec

In 2018, Amorín Cabrera founded CrustaTec in Guatemala as a project to develop a chitosan biopolymer from shrimp-shell waste as an absorbent to treat dye-polluted water. Project members designed a prototype filter and tested it with rural textile artisans who supplied wastewater samples. The effort was funded by the nonprofit Young Water Solutions in partnership with the German materials firm Aquafin.

CrustaTec is part of Indequi, an R&D and consulting firm that Amorín Cabrera founded. She is currently a master’s student in materials chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and continues to work on CrustaTec, even visiting India to connect with potential partners in that country’s aquaculture industry.

Fuzionaire Diagnostics’ tracers expand uses of PET scans

Positron-emission tomography (PET) scans are a powerful way to look inside the human body to assess its health and functioning. PET’s ability to image, measure, and detect depends on the use of radiolabeled tracers specifically designed to show the locations of certain biologically relevant molecules, like those involved in cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, or immune function. Fuzionaire Diagnostics, a start-up based in Pasadena, California, aims to expand the variety of those tracers and thus the potential uses of PET scans.

This image of a PET scan shows where radiolabeled tracers collect in the liver of a patient.
Credit: Jens Langner
Radiolabeled tracers are used in PET scans like this one.

To do that, Fuzionaire is using alkali metal catalysts and a reagent platform to manufacture new fluorine-18–labeled tracer molecules. The system was developed at the California Institute of Technology by cofounder Anton Toutov while he worked in the laboratory of chemistry Nobel laureate Robert H. Grubbs. According to the company, the tracers can be used for early disease detection as well as for drug discovery research and clinical trials.

In October 2019, Fuzionaire formed a joint venture with Japan Medical Isotope Technology Development with the goal of commercializing the radiolabel technology in Japan. In addition to uses in diagnostics, the chemistry is being used for new anticancer radiotherapies, Fuzionaire says.

Joywell Foods scales up sweet proteins with fermentation

Food makers are always on the hunt for better sweeteners—and the supersweet proteins found in plant species like Synsepalum dulcificum could be just the ticket for ingredients that taste like sugar but are healthier and derived from nature.

S.dulcificum is also known as miracle fruit thanks to a glycoprotein called miraculin that can make sour, acidic foods taste sweet by activating our sweet taste receptors. It’s one of a number of plants containing proteins that are up to 5,500 times as sweet as sugar, according to Joywell Foods.

This photo shows the fruit Synsepalum dulcificum.
Credit: MiracleFruitFarm
Synsepalum dulcificum contains a supersweet protein.

But it’s not economical to extract the sweet proteins from fruit because they are present in tiny amounts. So the Davis, California–based firm has a plan to produce them via fermentation using modified microbes.

Joywell was founded in 2014. Jason Ryder, who previously worked at the synthetic-biology firms Amyris and Bolt Threads, joined the company as chief technology officer in 2018. In July, Joywell raised $6.9 million in series A funding led by Evolv Ventures, the venture capital fund backed by Kraft Heinz. In addition to building a manufacturing platform, the start-up is working to find out which foods and beverages taste best when sweetened with natural proteins.


This story was updated on Dec. 1, 2020, to correct the year that Jason Ryder joined Joywell Foods. He joined in 2018, not 2014.

RenewCO2’s catalysts make monomers from CO2 and water

At New Jersey–based RenewCO2, chemists Anders Laursen and Karin Calvinho are developing electrochemical cells to transform carbon dioxide and water into the common chemical ethylene glycol and two with market potential, methylglyoxal and furandiol.

Electrochemical cells are one way chemists and engineers are seeking to capture CO2 and convert it to useful materials, a strategy called carbon capture and use. But the strategy is plagued by low yields and high energy requirements.

This photo shows an electrochemical cell made by RenewCO2.
Credit: RenewCO2
RenewCO2 is developing catalysts for electrochemical cells that convert CO2 into useful chemicals.

To boost the performance of their cells, Laursen and Calvinho are developing catalysts containing nickel phosphides that can reduce CO2 to C3 and C4 oxyhydrocarbons at a low electric potential of 10 mV. The core technology came from Rutgers University, where Laursen is a research associate.

In April, RenewCO2 secured a $225,000 Phase I business research grant from the US National Science Foundation to develop electrolyzers that convert brine and CO2 into ethylene glycol, chlorine, and sodium hydroxide.

Sabinano provides nanomaterials and expertise to South Africa’s scientists

Nanoscale carbon in forms such as nanotubes, graphene, and doped particles are often at the heart of innovations in batteries, wastewater treatment, lightweight materials, and heat-transfer devices. Now those materials—and the expertise needed to use them—are available to industrial, government, and academic researchers based in South Africa.

Johannesburg-based Sabinano was founded by Sabelo Mhlanga, formerly a materials science professor at the University of South Africa, where he was also deputy director of the school’s Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability Research Unit. Mhlanga became the company’s CEO in 2018.

Sabinano’s offerings span manufacturing, research, consulting, and lab services. Its partners include South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation and Solzen Energy, a company developing graphene-based ultracapacitors for energy storage.

Selling carbon nanomaterials and offering related services are not Sabinano’s only goals, according to the company’s website: “We would like to see the industry grow in South Africa, through empowering people of all races and backgrounds.”



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