Solugen – Ode to a Sustainable Future With Green Chemistry

Solugen – Ode to a Sustainable Future With Green Chemistry

Ode to Clean®, the world’s first cleaning wipes made from 100% plant-based ingredients, was acquired from Solugen by wet wipe giant Diamond Wipes International® in November 2018. This was no small feat, especially since the fledgling startup launched Ode to Clean, featuring the company’s ‘Bioperoxide’ formula, just a month prior to this acquisition.

Solugen’s version of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) ‘Bioperoxide’ is the product of an all natural process involving plant starch and water. It is extremely safe to manufacture apart from being a 100% biodegradable and not in the least toxic.

But 90+ years previous to this launch by Solugen, which is dually headquartered in Houston and Philadelphia, things were quite different in the H2O2 manufacturing space.

Origin of Solugen’s Bioperoxide

Commercially used for everything from bleaching hair to potable water treatment and as propellant in the transportation industry, H2O2 has long been been produced through a capital-intensive and environmentally dangerous process. In fact, the traditional anthraquinone production of 500 tons of H2O2 per day would end up emitting 600+ tons of carbon dioxide. Thus, this unsustainable manufacturing process was just waiting to be disrupted.

Enter Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Dr. Sean Hunt. It was in 2012 that Chakrabarti, as part of his 7-year-long research studying cancer cells for his doctoral degree at University of Texas Southwestern, discovered a unique enzyme (that he calls Solugen’s secret sauce). He recognized that it has the power to produce H2O2 efficiently from sugar sources. Around the same time, c&en reports that Hunt was pursuing his chemical engineering PhD on ‘nanoparticle synthesis for hydrogen peroxide production’ at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

As luck would have it, Chakrabarti met Hunt through a classmate and their common interests (including poker) ensured that they got along. Yet, Hunt admitted that initially he had his reservations about the efficacy of Chakrabarti’s discovery.

“I never liked enzymes—I thought they were too fragile, too expensive,” Hunt saidBut those concerns were soon forgotten, when he witnessed the data around the enzymes efficiency.

Then in the summer of 2015, explosions at the Arkema Inc. chemical plant outside Houston, as a result of Hurricane Harvey, released quite a bit of noxious H2O2 in the air. This was followed by another explosion in a local H2O2 plant in 2016 that killed one worker. Chakrabarti claims that one such explosion happens every year in Houston. These consecutive occurrences shook both scientists into action. And the rest as they say is history.

The duo jointly discovered an industrial-grade hydrogen peroxide production process that uses cheap, biodegradable reagents(enzymes enhanced using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing), with the goal of saving billions of dollars in costs and significantly decreasing CO2 emissions.

Unlike the almost-century-old technique of petroleum-based H2O2 production (that involves flammable and toxic substances), this eco-friendly solution uses simple ingredients such as plant sugars, the company’s proprietary enzymes, water and air. These plant sugars are picked from local food waste, making it more sustainable. For example, in the United States the plant sugar used could be from corn husk, while in Africa they could use sugar cane refuse and in Chile maybe use sugar beets.

So, in early 2016, they pitched their first patented product ‘Bioperoxide’ to receive immediate interest from several sources to buy and invest in it. So in the same year, they formed Solugen that placed its focus on using Chakrabarti’s enzyme in a reactor that Hunt built for the production of H2O2.

And immediately, they started working towards producing small batches of this clean-version of H2O2, with equipment purchased for just $7,000 at a Home Depot.

And by October 2017, its first consumer product lineup “Ode To Clean”, made of bioperoxide and gluconic acid, was launched. These cleaning wipes were priced at $4-5 per pack and well on its way to sell $4M per year. Concurrently, it raised $4.4M in its third seed financing round, from investors such as Y Combinator, Refactor Capital, Liquid 2 Ventures, Social Capital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Ode to Clean is not only a safe and effective cleaning product, but it’s also a proof of concept for Bioperoxide,” said David Lee, co-founder and Managing Partner at Refactor Capital said in a statement. “Sean and Gaurab are not only proving that Bioperoxide can be produced in a safe and environmentally friendly manner, but that there is an increasing demand for consumer products and companies that are actively reducing their carbon footprint.”

Going straight into retail was a rather unconventional move for Solugen, as chemical startups usually look to be acquired by big brands.

While Solugen had to face some heat for having created ‘a gimmicky consumer product’ based on cool science experiments, its retail debut went on to garner quite a bit of attention. “Going to big companies directly takes forever,” Chakrabarti said to c&en. “So we decided to start our own brand.”

Reportedly, the wipes sold like hotcakes and thus helped secure the deal with Diamond Wipes International®. This retail success also helped Solugen capture a slot in AkzoNobel’s Imagine Chemistry start-up contest in 2018. The startup went ahead and also inked a joint development agreement with AkzoNobel, which is one of the world’s largest producers of H2O2, to analyse the viability of this model and then perfect Hunt’s reactor.

Hunt claims that AkzoNobel found the economics of Solugen’s production process to be much more favourable as compared to the traditional (anthraquinone) route. This is primarily because Solugen’s process yields two valuable products (H2O2 and gluconic acid) from simple raw materials.

Decentralizing Production with Solugen

Apart from delivering more value, Solugen also does away with the expenses associated with the heavy equipment and raw materials crucial to the anthraquinone process. In fact, Hunt claims that a medium sized anthraquinone facility would costs $100M to set-up. This also poses issues in scaling-up.

While the use of simpler raw materials (a la Solugen) solved one part of the issue, there was still the expenses of the heavy equipment and thus scalability to deal with.

Currently, Solugen can produce 10 metric tons per month of a mixture of ‘green’ H2O2 and gluconic acid. But it doesn’t have its sights set on becoming a giant chemical manufacturer of the future. It would rather create a network of its reactors that use its ‘distillation recipe’.

Hunt said in a statement, “Our micromanufacturing units make it easy to scalably produce Bioperoxide when and where it is needed, reducing the long-term risks associated with storing and transporting hydrogen peroxide.”

It plans to decentralize the production process by licensing their proprietary micromanufacturing platform and selling their enzymes to chemical companies or end-users so that they can produce the H2O2 on their own. This eliminates expensive shipping and machinery costs.

“We don’t want to be a manufacturing powerhouse; we want to help design and build,” Hunt said to Greenbiz.

Putting Oxygen into new places

Today, Solugen’s biochemical products are taking chemical manufacturer giants such as Dow Chemicals, Solvay and Evonik head-on. Therefore, apart from the $3.9Bn+ (in 2015) H2O2 market, the founders of Solugen with $120,000 ARR are also looking into perfecting other reactions to disrupt new chemical industries.

“We like to put oxygen in places it doesn’t like to be,” Chakrabarti said to c&en. For instance, they are looking at combining H2O2 and acetic acid to create peracetic acid which can be used in the food industry as a cleanser and a disinfectant.

Such broad future prospects and Solugen’s current success were taken into consideration when, in November 2018, investors forked out $19M+ in a series A funding round. With this funding it hopes to double its staff count to 26 by the end of 2019.

As for the the future of cleantech, to Chakrabarti and Hunt it is bright, sparkling and studded with immense possibilities. “We were born to do this,” Hunt said. “We want to retire at Solugen 30 years from now.”

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