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."

Houston has the potential to be a great place for startups, but it might need some fine tuning. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

I often think about why Houston's entrepreneurship ecosystem hasn't taken off as much as it should, given the talent pool and the industrial gravity that's concentrated here.

I joined Station Houston as one of the very early members in January of 2016 and since then been watching all the moving parts in the Houston innovation ecosystem as an entrepreneur. I wanted to share four practical ideas on how Houston can emerge as a startup hub.

1. Houston entrepreneurship needs to focus on deep tech and multidisciplinary endeavors
I believe a lot of breakthrough innovations will come from the interaction between different scientific disciplines or industries. We can target startups built on multidisciplinary sciences and provide a support system for them to thrive in Houston. We have the absolute best engineers, rocket scientists, and doctors in Houston, yet they aren't talking to each other as much as they should. Programs like Pipes and Pumps are great, but we need a modernized initiative that goes beyond holding a one-day event per year. A methodical and continuous program that brings professionals from energy, space, and medicine together to address the challenges these industries face. This may sound crazy, but it works. For example, my last startup commercialized DNA Sequencing in the oil and gas industry. Another startup is using microfluidics to simulate the reservoir, and there are startups using satellite data to identify methane emissions. Now, imagine if we were systematically identifying these opportunities and incubating these startups in Houston. We would be unstoppable and, more importantly, we would be ourselves. Let's help our entrepreneurial doctors, scientists, and engineers launch deep technology startups instead of trying to make apps.

2. Houston needs a structured startup program
Let's be honest, coworking space and 30-minute sessions with mentors isn't going to cut it. First-time entrepreneurs need a lot of help to gain experience and kick start their business model. What's missing is a structured program that can take a talented entrepreneur from the idea stage to raising their seed round (better or at least similar to Creative Destruction Lab or Breakout Lab).

3. Focus on helping the entrepreneurs, and the ecosystem will flourish
Any initiative around entrepreneurship that doesn't boil down to helping entrepreneurs is effectively useless. We need to pass all activities through the "entrepreneur benefit" filter. The current suite of entrepreneurship activities in Houston are skewed towards self-celebratory warm and fuzzy feeling for the ecosystem; we need to shift the attention and resources to entrepreneurs who are in the trenches trying to make it to the next level. Once we have good entrepreneurs, we will have good exits which makes investors happy and incentivize them to invest more. Those entrepreneurs then start building other companies or turn investor and this cycle gradually builds the ecosystem. What's happening now is quite the opposite; all the attention is on building the ecosystem and hoping that it's going to make everything else happen/

4. Houston could be the home for moonshots
Moonshots come from the application of deep technology, and I can't think of a better place to be the home for moonshot startups than Houston. From cure for cancer to rockets to Mars, to reversing climate change via CO2 capture and utilization. That said ideating and incubating moonshots requires vision and the appetite for risk-taking. The good news is that this model really works. As proof look at the OS Fund amazing and astronomically successful portfolio of the companies. According to Bryan Johnson, "OS Fund is investing in deep tech companies that marry hard science and technology to solve big problems and make money." We need a new breed of investment firms such as OS Fund in Houston.

Imagine if we had a portfolio of multidisciplinary deep technology startups in Houston, going through a rigorous program and had the support of the Houston industrial magnets and investors to take off. Now that's what Houston deserves.

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Moji Karimi is co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Cemvita Factory Inc.