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."

Three young professionals took the stage to discuss the future tech of offshore operations in oil and gas. Courtesy photos

The oil and gas industry has a reputation for being a slow adapter when it comes to technology advances, but that's changing — as is the workforce. In the next few years, half of the United States workforce will be millennials, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A panel at the 2019 Offshore Technology Conference discussed the future of oil and gas technology — and the young professionals who are taking over the industry.

"It is just exhausting to be continuously interrupted in meetings — day in and day out — for your full career. What makes it worse, is no one seems to notice but you, unless you're lucky and have another woman in the year." 

— Allison Lami Sawyer, partner at the League of Worthwhile Ventures, when asked about being a young, female leader in industry. She adds that what's even worse is when you internalize it yourself and stop noticing.

“There’s a whole population of frustrated visionaries in oil and gas who are really excited to work with new tech.”

— Sawyer says the challenge is less getting a foot in the door at large companies and more going from pilot to mid- to widespread use.

“Oil and gas is essentially banking. Did you know you’re all bankers?”

— There's more labor to it, Sawyer says, but the C-suite at oil and gas companies are approaching it like banking. And in banking, there's a lot of AI-based fintech that goes into that decision making process and that might, down the road, come to oil and gas when the data is there.

“It’s happening. New technologies are being added, but it’s about finding the right value proposition for the company. That needs to resonate.”

— Sidd Gupta, founder and CEO of Nesh, says, adding that maybe it's not happening at as fast a rate as people wished.

“There’s been an increased demand for people internally who can take 3D models and put them into an AR environment. … Maybe four years ago, I would never have said that oil and gas companies would have internal AR/VR experts.”

— Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR, on the rising need for professionals with augmented and virtual reality skills.

“Anything that can positively impact safety has been a big winner — especially on the contractor side.”

— Emshey, when asked about what sort of technology is attractive to big oil and gas companies.