Energy transition innovator shares how Houston could be a biomanufacturing hub
Moji Karimi and his sister Tara had the idea for a company that could transform carbon emissions and mitigate new damage to the environment. Only, it seems, they were a bit ahead of their time.
Houston-based Cemvita Factory, founded in 2017, uses synthetic biology and take carbon emissions and transform them into industrial chemicals. However, it's only been since recently that the conversation on climate change mitigation has focused on carbon utilization.
"I think people are realizing more about the importance of really focusing on carbon capture and utilization because fossil fuels are gonna be here, whether we like it or not, for a long time, so the best thing we could do is to find ways to decarbonize them," Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO, tells InnovationMap. "There's been this focus around carbon capture and storage, and I think the next awakening is going to be utilization."
Karimi joins InnovationMap for a Q&A about what the next year has in store for Cemvita and why Houston has some of the ingredients to become a hub for this type of innovation.
InnovationMap: You recently closed your series A round. What does that mean for Cemvita and what’s next when it comes to your funding journey?
Moji Karimi: With the series A in the bank, we started allocating that to expand the team and the footprint of our operations in Texas Technology Park off Kirby. This is where we had our initial lab and office space, which was about 6,000 square feet. And now we're expanding with an additional 3,000 square feet just for the office space and turning our initial 6,000 square feet into a big lab to support some of the new projects we're onboarding.
Another big part of that use of funds was establishing our Denver operations for biomining. That office went from having one person to a team of six. Our facility there is about 5,500 square feet with lab and office space to support new projects that we're getting.
The rest of the series A will be utilized for the new space and new people to accomplish the goals that we have for 2022. Toward the end of 2022, we'll launch the campaign for our series B.
IM: With the expanded offices and growing team, what has that meant in terms of Cemvita's capabilities?
MK: We have established our biofoundry, which is basically the engine for what we do. It's where we engineer the microbes and where we do a lot of the screening — small scale testing and fermentation and where we streamline our scale up process. What that allows us to do is, when we take on new projects, more efficiently go from engineering the microbe and doing tests in a test tube, to testing from one liter, 10 liters, 100 liters, and then even 1,000 liters all within our facilities.
Part of what's unique about Cemvita is to be able to do this scale up. A lot of our competitors engineer the microbes and then they just give the licensing to the client. For our customers, we need to also do their scale up. We have the right setup for the products that we have right now, the main one being bio ethylene, and the big milestone for this year is to have that pilot plant and to get to that one ton per month of ethylene production.
IM: You've recently grown your team significantly — are you still hiring?
MK: We're about 35 people right now. The last time we talked, we're like 15 or 20 or something. That's full-time people and there's another 10 to 15 contractors and part-timers as well. I think before our series B, we'll probably add another 10 to 15 people, but then we'll slow down before the series B. We have about 28 to 30 people in Houston and the other five or six are in Denver.
We are hiring for the biofoundry — so, microbiologists, molecular biologists, bioinformatics. Outside of the biofoundry, we're hiring for business development, process engineers, commercialization, and technical economic assessment. We're gonna have a position for an analyst coming up. On the Denver team, we have positions for about the same skill sets.
IM: 2021 seemed to be a year of great accomplishment on a national scale, from recently being a finalist in the COP26 Pitch Battle to winning last summer’s GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge. What’s 2022 going to be defined by for you?
MK: I think 2021 was a great year for us, even though it did slow us down a little bit in COVID and not being able to get deals done faster, so took a bit longer than expected.
Now going into 2022, what I characterize where we are right right now is the end of the beginning. From here on is really the growth chapter. We're done with the early stage stuff, and we are starting to graduate out of being a startup and into a real company. This year we have a lot of goals to accomplish, including our pilot with Oxy. We also are going to be more active in working with the Department of Energy to get some grants and expand our customer base.
We've been, in some ways, selective because, you know, we're not a B-to-C company, so we don't need 200 customers. We just need a few who are both innovative companies that are truly thinking about 2030 and 2050, but also those who are a good fit for our technology and scale up. This year, we're also gonna focus heavily on the IP for a lot of these applications that we're focused on are still pretty nascent. We want to make sure that we protect IP, especially now that we have good amount of resources from our series A.
In February, we're launching a new solution for hydrogen during the 2nd American Hydrogen Forum in Houston. That's going to be really exciting. We're also doing a lot internally in terms of how our lab runs. We're developing processes for being more efficient in candidate screening methodology, and also for high throughput sequencing.
IM: When we originally spoke years ago in the early days of both Cemvita and InnovationMap, one of the things I remember talking to you about is how nascent the CO2 utilization industry was. How has that changed over the years and what does that evolution mean for you?
MK: That's a really good question, especially the way that you framed it. I think it's been really interesting the past two years. The energy transition went from people thinking that solar and wind are going to solve all these problems to then having a bit of a reality check. Throughout last year, people have realized, "oh, I guess we need fossil fuels anyways. We need to find ways to work with the oil and gas industry." At the end of the day, this is not the "energy switch," right? This is the "energy transition." Alongside that, there's been more of an education around the role that nuclear and geothermal are going to play. People are like a lot more open minded, especially for nuclear just over the past few months.
I think people are realizing more about the importance of really focusing on carbon capture and utilization because fossil fuels are gonna be here, whether we like it or not, for a long time, so the best thing we could do is to find ways to decarbonize them. There's been this focus around carbon capture and storage, and I think the next awakening is going to be utilization. At the end of the day, these companies are spending money to store CO2 — they don't make money doing that. Whereas if you could figure out how to use CO2 as feedstock and turn that into a valuable chemical, they could sell it and have that revenue, and also close that carbon loop. That's really the, the end goal and holy grail. That's been our vision and mission.
I think it's true by your observation that we were a bit mistimed in the market. We were a bit ahead of what people were asking for, but then again, that's part of having a vision.
IM: One thing you've been passionate about is establishing Houston as a biomining and biomanufacturing hub. Why does Houston make sense for this type of hub and what exactly needs to occur to make it happen?
MK: Houston has its Climate Action Plan that the city published, and just think about how many chemical plants and refineries that we have. Plus, we already know that a big part of the future of chemical manufacturing is going to be biomanufacturing. Chemical reactions use so much heat and electricity, and that's why we have high scope of emissions. A lot of these processes are going to be replaced by biomanufacturing and using microbes to make the chemicals — and microbes do that under ambient pressure temperature. It's more sustainable. That's really what Solugen is doing. You would think that Lyondellbasell, Chevron, Exxon, Oxy and more would all sit together say, "Hey guys, what are we doing about this? How could we start some initiatives for this?" Rice University has a program around synthetic biology and University of Houston has a lot of bioprocessing. But what happens is those guys graduate and then they leave Houston. They go find a job in Boston. I think that's something we have to work on that on for companies to think about their strategic direction and be involved with the city, with the academic institutions, and with the startups like us.
For chemicals, Houston plays a big role. The way to decarbonize, in part, is by biomanufacturing. It does make sense for Houston to be more proactive about that.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.