sustainability moves

Oxy taps Houston startup's carbon negative biotechnology for new pilot plant

Cemvita Factory is working on a pilot plant with Oxy to scale its biotechnology. Photo via OxyLowCarbon.com

Occidental's venture arm — Oxy Low Carbon Ventures — has announced its plans to construct and operate a one metric ton per month bio-ethylene pilot plant featuring Houston-based Cemvita Factory's technology that biomimics photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks.

The new plant will scale the process, which was jointly developed between Cemvita and OLCV, and is expected sometime next year, according to a press release from Oxy.

"Today bio-ethylene is made from bio-ethanol, which is made from sugarcane, which in turn was created by photosynthesizing CO2. Our bio-synthetic process simply requires CO2, water and light to produce bio-ethylene, and that's why it saves a lot of cost and carbon emissions," says Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory, in the release. "This project is a great example of how Cemvita is applying industrial-strength synthetic biology to help our clients lower their carbon footprint while creating new revenue streams."

Oxy and Cemvita have been working together for a while, and in 2019, OLCV invested an undisclosed amount into the startup. The investment, according to the release, was made to jointly explore how these advances in synthetic biology can be used for sustainability efforts in the bio-manufacturing of OxyChem's products.

"This technology could provide an opportunity to offer a new, non-hydrocarbon-sourced ethylene product to the market, reducing carbon emissions, and in the future benefit our affiliate, OxyChem, which is a large producer and consumer of ethylene in its chlorovinyls business," says Robert Zeller, vice president of technology at OLCV, in a news release.

Moji 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.

"Nature provided the inspiration," noted Dr. Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. "We took a gene from a banana and genetically engineered it into our CO2-utilizing host microorganism. We are now significantly increasing its productivity with the goal to achieve commercial metrics that we have defined alongside OLCV."

A couple weeks ago, Moji Karimi joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss growth and challenges Cemvita Factory faced.

"We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization," he shares on the show. Stream the episode below.

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Building Houston

 
 

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

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