HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 76

Growing Houston biotech startup is capturing a new way for oil and gas to get to carbon negative

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory, is offering energy execs an innovative way to meat their climate change pledge goals. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

As more and more energy companies are focusing on reducing their carbon footprint ahead of lofty clean energy goals, Moji Karimi, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based Cemvita Factory, is doing his oil and gas clients one better. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, Cemvita provides an additional revenue stream for its clients.

Karimi founded the company with his sister and Cemvita CTO, Tara, in 2017. The idea was to biomimic photosynthesis to take CO2 and turn it into something else. The first iteration of the technology turned CO2 into sugar — the classic photosynthesis process. Karimi says the idea was to create this process for space, so that astronauts can turn the CO2 they breathe out into a calorie source.

"While we were doing that, we realized the big picture is not just the space application. If we could apply the same technology for other chemicals made in energy-intensive way, then we could actually help with climate change," Karimi says on the podcast.

Now, Cemvita has 30 different molecules its technology can produce and works with the likes of BHP, Oxy, and more energy clients to take their carbon emissions and turn it into something useful.

"It's not just for sustainability reasons — it's part of the reinvention of the company to maintain its legacy for the next few decades to come," Karimi adds.

While 2020 was a chance for Cemvita to reset, by Q4 of last year the company was in growth mode and got back to the lab. The company's teams were divided between two spots — one being an R&D team in larger office at JLABS @ TMC — and Karimi says later this year that will change. Cemvita is moving into a larger, combined space in Upper Kirby in May.

But Karimi says one of the biggest challenges Cemvita is facing is that its doing something that's never been done before. There's a huge learning curve for clients and oil and gas stakeholders.

"There weren't biotech companies working with oil and gas companies for this use case that we have now," Karimi says. "We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization."

There are other companies in the carbon capture and neutralization fields, though they are taking slightly different approaches. Rather than being competitive, companies in this space are working together for a greater good.

"The more successful that some of these other companies are in opening up the market, that also helps us the same way we're doing for them," Karimi says. "It's an interesting and collaborative area, because at the end of the day, the outcome is good for the world."

Karimi shares more about what Cemvita's growth plans on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Building Houston

 
 

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity. Photo via Getty Images

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

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