See ya, CO2

Houston company is solving the energy and space industries' carbon dioxide problems with synthetic photosynthesis

The Karimi siblings have created a way to synthetically convert CO2 into glucose, and they are targeting the energy and aerospace industries for their technology. Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Houston-based Cemvita Factory is unlike most startups. Before even knowing what industry they were going to affect, Moji Karimi and his sister, Tara, established their company, which uses synthetic photosynthesis — the process of turning carbon dioxide into glucose for plants.

"In some ways, this company started with the solution, rather than the problem," Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita, says. "Then we said, 'if we could replicate photosynthesis, what problems can we solve?'"

Once the technology was set in place, Karimi, who has a background in oil and gas drilling, says he identified the energy industry in need of something like this. He says he saw an increased pressure on large energy companies to adapt sustainable ways to get rid of the CO2 that is produced as a result of drilling.

More and more companies are investing in a process called carbon dioxide capturing — but it's expensive and not yet cost efficient for energy companies to commit to. But that's changing. Karimi says the process that once cost $600 per ton of CO2 now can be found as cheap as $30.

With his sister's technology, Karimi says they can take that captured carbon dioxide and turn it into other chemicals too. Each oil and gas company client can specify what they want to turn it into and, for less than $100,000, Cemvita will run a pilot program for them. Cemvita sells the exclusive rights to the technology, but still maintains its IP.

"We go to these companies and say, 'What do you want to convert CO2 into?,'" Karimi says. "Then, we do a quick pilot in six months in our lab, and we show them the metrics. They decide if they want to scale it up."

What seemed like another obvious industry for this process was aerospace. Many companies involved in aerospace exploration have Mars on the mind, and the planet's atmosphere is over 95 percent carbon dioxide. Plus, Cemvita can provide a more sustainable way to dispose of CO2 onboard spacecrafts. The current practice is essentially just discarding it by filtering it off the spaceship.

Putting a system in place
Cemvita was founded in August of 2017 and used 2018 to really establish itself. The company took second place at Dubai's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre Innovation Challenge and completed the accelerator program at Capital Factory.

Realizing the process is new and without the backing of an educational institution, Karimi says he and his sister needed a way to answer any questions and concerns, so Tara wrote a book. "Molecular Mechanisms of Autonomy in Biological Systems" is published by Springer.

Karimi also lead a talk at Tudor Pickering Holt's Energy Disruptor conference. His discussion, "From Mars to Midland," garnered a lot of interest from energy professionals.

The future is now
Karimi says 2019 is all about execution. He never thought he and his sister would overlap their industries, but now there's more of a need of interdisciplinary collaboration than ever before.

"There are a lot of opportunities bringing a proven science or technology from one industry into another to solve problems," he says.

The company has growth plans this year. The team has bootstrapped everything financially so far, but is looking for its first funding round in the middle of 2019. And, as far as the Karimi siblings are concerned, they are in the exact right place to grow.

"We're in Houston, and we have a technology that is from biotech and have applications in the space industry and the energy industry," Karimi says. "There would not have been any better place for us in the country than Houston."

Cemvita Factory has made a deal with Houston-based Oxy subsidiary. Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

A Houston startup's carbon dioxide conversion technology has impressed Occidental Petroleum's low carbon subsidiary.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC has invested an undisclosed amount of funds into Cemvita Factory, the companies announced on August 15.

"One of OLCV's strategic priorities is to develop and commercialize CO2 utilization technologies that complement Occidental's core businesses and product lines, with the goal of helping Occidental find value in new markets and attain its aspiration of becoming carbon neutral," says Richard Jackson, OLCV president, in a news release. "Cemvita Factory's CO2 utilization platform has the potential to harness the power of nature and create new, sustainable pathways for the bio-manufacturing of our products."

Cemvita was founded by two siblings — Moji Karimi, who has a background in the oil and gas industry, and his sister, Tara, who has a background in biotech. Cemvita's biotechnology can replicate photosynthesis — absorbing CO2 and transforming it into glucose or other substances.

While the amount invested in Cemvita isn't disclosed, Moji previously told InnovationMap that he could run a custom pilot program for an energy company for less than $100,000.

"With the investment received from Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, we plan to demonstrate that our technology can economically scale from test tube to the field," Moji, who is the company's CEO, says in the release.

According to the release, Cemvita has a network of clients it is working with to reduce the industry's carbon footprint.

"We have an ambitious goal to take one gigaton of CO2 out of the carbon cycle in the next decade and are very excited about being a part of Occidental's journey to become a carbon-neutral company," says Tara, co-founder and chief scientist, in the release.