Growing up near both the mountains and the lush wine region of La Rioja in the north of Spain, Cristina Sáenz de Pipaón developed a fondness for nature. At a young age, she wanted to understand the why and how of things in the world.
➤ Title: CEO, Orchestra Scientific
➤ Funding: $415,000
➤ Investors: KIC InnoEnergy and private angel investors
Perhaps then, it’s no surprise that as an entrepreneur today, she’s championing a technology that could help preserve our planet as well as enhance her understanding of why the world’s climate is changing. Her company, Orchestra Scientific, is developing metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) capable of separating carbon dioxide from other gases and trapping it.
“All gases go very fast through the material, except CO2, which goes very slowly,” Sáenz de Pipaón explains.
When incorporated into a membrane, the MOFs could help reduce industrial CO2 emissions, a leading cause of climate change. The CO2 could then be diverted for use in other applications, such as carbonating beverages or stabilizing pH. “CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but it is also a product,” Sáenz de Pipaón says.
Sáenz de Pipaón also thinks the membrane technology could be used to lower the cost of removing CO2 from biogas, a blend of gases released by waste such as sewage. This would make it cheaper to isolate methane, a valuable source of energy, from the mixture. Current membrane technologies that are used to refine biogas rely on cryogenic temperatures and high pressures. In contrast, Orchestra’s technology works at room temperature and atmospheric pressure.
“The process has been scaled up, and we are testing our prototypes,” says Sáenz de Pipaón, who is Orchestra’s CEO and cofounder. “We hope to be in the market at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.”
Sáenz de Pipaón began her career studying physics and optics at the University of Zaragoza and earned a PhD from the Aragón Materials Science Institute. A 1-year stint at a now-defunct company that aimed to scale up production of graphene and a 4-year postdoc at the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ) added to her strong scientific background. Orchestra spun out in 2017 from the work she was doing in José Ramón Galán-Mascarós’s group at ICIQ.
Starting a company is challenging for scientists because most science PhD programs don’t teach students about business or economics, Sáenz de Pipaón says. During the past 2 years, she learned by talking to companies, participating in business accelerator programs, and taking classes toward earning an MBA. One of the hardest parts for scientists trying to translate discoveries from the research lab to industry is figuring out how to scale up, she says. That is because “no industry is interested in working with something that is at lab scale.”
To bridge that gap, Orchestra asked cleantech companies questions such as “How do you want this material to work?” “What is important for you?” and “What are you willing to pay for?” When Orchestra started getting answers, its business model began to take shape.
Sáenz de Pipaón is developing technology that “is helping to solve one of our most pressing challenges by efficiently separating CO2 using novel membranes based on MOF materials,” says Javier García Martínez, director of the Molecular Nanotechnology Lab at the University of Alicante and a member of C&EN’s advisory board. The membranes work even at very low pressures, unlike current membrane technologies.
Being a woman in a male-dominated business world, Sáenz de Pipaón says companies have not always taken her seriously. But that hasn’t stopped her. It inspired her to actively promote the important role of women in science. She now regularly visits high schools in hopes of inspiring young girls to pursue a career in science. “You need a reference, someone who has done it before,” she says. Right now, “we don’t have a female reference, and to me it is very important.”