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Editorial: Rise of the start-ups in C&EN

by Michael McCoy
June 11, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 19


Along with my colleague Alex Tullo, I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring C&EN’s archives in this, the magazine’s centennial year.

Tullo creates our From the Archives features, which look at a seminal story from each of the past 10 decades. He is also the author of a forthcoming feature that will chart the intertwined corporate histories of six major chemical companies. And Tullo often shares with me interesting pages from past issues, along with his comments on how C&EN’s design and coverage have evolved. It’s good, nerdy fun.

One thing that strikes me about the magazine today, compared with 20 years or more ago, is how much more often start-up companies appear in our pages. Last week’s news section, for example, mentioned six start-ups. By contrast, a news section I picked randomly from a January 2000 issue mentioned none.

Multiple definitions of start-up can be found on the internet, but I think of a start-up as a young company that raises money from outside investors, typically venture capitalists, to develop an idea or technology and bring it to market. Lore has it that Fairchild Semiconductor, founded in 1957, was the first firm to launch with the backing of a modern form of venture capital.

Venture capital investing grew from there, but slowly. The National Venture Capital Association wasn’t formed until 1973. In 2004, the value of venture capital deals in the US was about $22 billion, according to the association. That figure rose gradually to $32 billion in 2010, and then skyrocketed. By 2021, it had reached $345 billion.

During the early 2000s, C&EN chronicled the rise of chemistry start-ups. They emerged in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries thanks to a confluence of trends, including growing entrepreneurialism among university professors and the decline of the central R&D laboratory at big drug firms and chemical companies. Investors, meanwhile, became more comfortable placing bets on multiple risky ideas in hope of a big payoff on one of them.

In 2004, acknowledging the rising importance of start-ups in the chemical world, C&EN accelerated its coverage of chemistry-related start-ups. Then, in 2015, we debuted 10 Start-Ups to Watch, an annual special issue that celebrates entrepreneurship in the chemical and life sciences industries.

We’ve been promoting the 10 Start-Ups to Watch nomination form on our website in recent weeks, and it’s been fascinating to see the submission spreadsheet become populated by interesting companies. We are going to have a harder time than ever picking the 10 companies for this November’s package.

Meanwhile, start-ups continue to dot C&EN’s pages. This week’s cover story by Mitch Jacoby (page 20), is about biocement—an environmentally friendly cement that is secreted by microorganisms rather than generated in cement kilns. Such kilns are responsible for about 8% of the world’s anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions.

Not surprisingly, Jacoby’s story mentions four start-up companies commercializing this low-carbon cement. One of them, Biomason, raised $65 million from investors last year in a third round of venture capital funding. Its goal is to eliminate 25% of global carbon emissions from the concrete industry by 2030.

Indeed, much of the venture capital flowing into chemistry these days is for companies with solutions to the looming climate crisis or with new ways of making chemicals and other ingredients. On page 7, for example, Craig Bettenhausen writes about a firm called Debut Biotechnology, which spun out of the labs of chemist Gregory Weiss at the University of California, Irvine. The firm, which just raised $34 million in a round of venture capital funding, is using fermentation and cell-free enzymatic cascades instead of chemical synthesis to produce cosmetic ingredients for companies like L’Oreal.

As reporters and editors, we must resist getting caught up in the considerable hype that often surrounds start-ups. Still, it’s a lot of fun to write about them. I hope you enjoy reading about them as well.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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