climate tech

Houston startup raises $30M, plans to be 'next iconic chemical company' with plant-based alternatives

Solugen, which uses plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals, has raised an additional $30 million and is speculated to soon reach unicorn status. Photo via solugentech.com

While Forbes recently anointed Houston-based Solugen Inc. as one of the next billion-dollar "unicorns" in the startup world, Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti shrugs off the unicorn buzz.

Chakrabarti, a physician and scientist who's co-founder and CEO of the startup, concedes he doesn't know whether Solugen will be worth $1 billion or not. But he does know that the startup aspires to be a key competitor in the emerging "climate tech" sector, whose players strive to combat climate change. Chakrabarti estimates the climate-tech chemical space alone represents a global market opportunity valued at $1 trillion to $2 trillion per year.

Solugen's overarching goal in the climate-tech market: Replace petroleum-based chemicals with plant-based substitutes.

"I'd love it if we were the poster child that drives climate tech to be the next big, sexy trend," Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti acknowledges Solugen's investors, executives, and employees hope the startup succeeds financially. But success, he believes, goes beyond making money and plotting an exit strategy. Instead, Chakrabarti emphasizes "a shift in thinking" on climate tech that he says promises to transform the fledgling sector into a "true niche" that'll be "good for everyone."

"Who cares if people are all hyped up for the wrong reasons?" says Chakrabarti, referring to the unicorn speculation.

Solugen sits at the crossroads of biology and chemistry. In short, the startup taps into plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals and "decarbonize" the chemical industry.

"Quite simply, we want to become the next DowDuPont or the next iconic chemical company, but using principles of green chemistry instead of principles from petroleum chemistry," Chakrabarti says.

If Solugen does reach the icon stratosphere, Chakrabarti envisions it doing so on a speedy schedule. In the traditional petrochemical market, it can take 10 to 20 years to put a new product on the market, he says. "I don't have that kind of time. I'm a very impatient person," Chakrabarti says.

Gaurab Chakrabarti Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, isn't paying any mind to his company's predicted unicorn status — rather he's focusing on the difference he can make on reducing carbon emissions. Photo via solugentech.com

Spurred by that restlessness, Chakrabarti seeks to propel Solugen's products from concept to commercialization in the span of two years. He says the startup already has proven the ability to do that with its sugar-derived hydrogen peroxide product.

"We're going to continue to do that, and it would be great if we can continue demonstrating new [products] coming to market once a year," says Chakrabarti, who grew up in Sugar Land.

Solugen seems to have plenty of financial fuel to make that happen. In April, Solugen raised $30 million in venture capital as an add-on to its Series B funding, which initially closed May 2019. That brings its total VC haul to $68 million since it was founded in 2016, according to Forbes. The recent funding lifted the company's valuation to $250 million, putting it $750 million away from unicorn territory.

Chakrabarti doesn't dismiss the notion of an eventual IPO for Solugen but says being acquired isn't "terribly interesting to me."

"If you want to make money, you can always go be a banker," he notes.

Chakrabarti estimates Solugen will generate $30 million to $40 million in revenue this year, up from $12 million in 2019. Profit remains elusive, though, as the company pours its gains into R&D. The company graduated in 2017 from the Y Combinator startup accelerator. Aside from Y Combinator and Unicorn Venture Partners, investors include Founders Fund, Refactor Capital, Fifty Years, and KdT Ventures.

Solugen's current lineup features fewer than a half-dozen products, which are sold to industrial and government customers. Hundreds more products are in the pipeline for use in sectors like agriculture and energy, Chakrabarti says.

"It's one of the blessings and curses of this company — there's always something to work on, always something big to scale up," says Chakrabarti, who earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Working on selling Solugen's current products and developing its new products are 70 employees, located at its headquarters in Houston and its new production facility in Lubbock. By the end of this year, the startup should employ close to 100 people, Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti hesitates to identify Solugen's competitors, as he believes a perceived rival very well could end up becoming a partner.

"I think everyone eventually should be a partner of Solugen, not competition," he says. "It's an ideology that's actually the competition, an ideology like, 'We've always used petrochemistry. This is just how it's been done.'"

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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