The green chemistry company Solugen has raised a whopping $357 million from investors to further its goal of replacing much of current petrochemical production with a carbon-negative method of turning sugars into chemicals using both enzyme and chemical catalysts.
The fundraising was led by the investment firms GIC and Baillie Gifford, with participation from Temasek Holdings, BlackRock, Carbon Direct Capital Management, and others.
Solugen, one of C&EN’s 10 Start-Ups to Watch in 2018, was launched in 2016 by scientists Sean Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti. Its first commercial product was a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid made by oxidizing glucose with an enzyme that Chakrabarti discovered while completing an MD-PhD program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Today, Hunt and Chakrabarti operate a facility in Houston, called a BioForge, that combines the original enzymatic catalysis with chemical catalysis. There they can produce 10,000 metric tons (t) per year of their original products as well as other chemicals such as glucaric acid. Applications include water treatment and corrosion inhibition. The firm intends to spend some of its new cash to build three more facilities in the US Midwest, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
Hunt, Solugen’s chief technology officer, says the new plants will replicate the Houston facility in using enzymes to carry out the most difficult transformations and metal catalysts to do the rest. “We take the best part of fermentation, which is the enzyme, and the best part of petrochemistry, which is the heterogeneous metal catalyst,” Hunt says. The company filed 60 patents last year on the process, which Solugen calls chemienzymatic manufacturing, he says.
Unlike fossil fuel-based chemical production or even traditional fermentation, which generates carbon dioxide, Solugen’s approach is carbon-negative, Hunt says. By starting with plant-based raw materials, the firm’s 10,000 t operation can offset or sequester 30,000 t per year of CO2 equivalents, he says.
Moreover, the process generates 1 t of product from each 1 t of feedstock without the waste of conventional petrochemical plants, Hunt claims. “We’re the first asset permitted in Houston without air or wastewater emissions,” he says.
Solugen’s current product slate is derived from oxidation, and Hunt says the company’s researchers are now working to apply the chemienzymatic approach to reductions, dehydrations, and carboligations. But Chakrabarti, the firm’s CEO, says Solugen plans to fully exploit the potential of its current products, such as its ScavSol scale and corrosion inhibitor, before it moves on to new ones.
Indeed, Chakrabarti says this philosophy is part of what distinguishes Solugen from cleantech chemical companies that failed to exploit the potential of their first molecules before trying to develop new ones. Other applications for its sugar-oxidation technology include agriculture, concrete production, and foods and beverages.
Solugen is also different, he says, in manufacturing its own chemicals and doing its own finished-product formulation to offer customers a working solution to their problems, rather than just an ingredient. “We want to extract the most value possible from this first set of molecules,” Chakrabarti says. “By itself that’s a multi-billion-dollar business.”