Game changer

Houston clean energy company closes $5.8M Series A and prepares to revolutionize the industry

Syzygy Plasmonics, which is creating a cleaner energy source that runs on hydrogen, closed a $5.8 million round. Photo via plasmonics.tech

A Houston technology company is doing something that, for many decades, wasn't thought to be possible. Syzygy Plasmonics is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions.

The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander.

"There are rules in chemical engineering, and you can't break them, but we follow them in a different way," CEO Trevor Best tells InnovationMap. "What we're doing is fundamentally different. We're using light instead of heat to drive chemical reactions."

Syzygy's technology is structured more like a battery than that of a combustion engine. Inside the technology, there are cells, lights, and mirrors making as bright as possible, which then spurs a reaction that creates energy. It has the potential to be cheaper — it's made with cheaper materials — and, of course, cleaner than traditional fueling technology with fewer carbon emissions released.

This new photocatalytic chemical reactor has the potential to shake up the industrial gas, chemical, and energy industries — something that hasn't gone unnoticed by investors. Syzygy just closed a $5.8 million Series A round led by MIT's The Engine and Houston-based The GOOSE Society of Texas. Evok Innovations, a previous investor in the company, and angel investors from the Creative Destruction Lab also contributed to the round.

The funds will allow for Syzygy to continue to develop its technology and grow its team. Best tells InnovationMap that he expects to launch a full-size pilot by the end of 2020 and is already in talks with potential clients who are interested in the technology for industrial purposes.

"We're starting to solidify relationships and get customers ready," Best says.

Earlier this year, the company also received funding from the Department of Energy and from the National Science Foundation SBIR Program. The DOE tasked Syzygy with creating a reactor that transforms ammonia into hydrogen for fueling purposes. For the SBIR Program, the company is creating a reactor that processes carbon dioxide.

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Building Houston

 
 

San Diego-based rBIO moved to Houston to take advantage of the growing ecosystem of biomanufacturing and synthetic biology. Photo via Getty Images

Cameron Owen had an idea for a synthetic biology application, and he pitched it to a handful of postdoctoral programs. When he received the feedback that he didn't have enough research experience, he decided to launch a startup based in San Diego around his idea. He figured that he'd either get the experience he needed to re-apply, or he'd create a viable company.

After three years of research and development, Owen's path seems to have taken him down the latter of those two options, and he moved his viable company, rBIO, to Houston — a twist he didn't see coming.

“Houston was not on my radar until about a year and a half ago,” Owen says, explaining that he thought of Houston as a leading health care hub, but the coasts still had an edge when it came to what he was doing. “San Diego and the Boston area are the two big biotech and life science hubs.”

But when he visited the Bayou City in December of 2021, he says he saw first hand that something new was happening.

“Companies from California like us and the coastal areas were converging here in Houston and creating this new type of bioeconomy,” he tells InnovationMap.

Owen moved to Houston last year, but rBIO still has an academic partner in Washington University in St. Louis and a clinical research organization it's working with too, so he admits rBIO's local footprint is relatively small — but not for long.

"When we look to want to get into manufacturing, we definitely want to build something here in Houston," he says. "We’re just not to that point as a company."

In terms of the stage rBIO is in now, Owen says the company is coming out of R&D and into clinical studies. He says rBIO has plans to fundraise and is meeting with potential partners that will help his company scale and build out a facility.

With the help of its CRO partner, rBIO has two ongoing clinical projects — with a third coming next month. Owen says right now rBIO is targeting the pharmaceutical industry’s biologics sector — these are drugs our bodies make naturally, like insulin. About 12 percent of the population in the United States has diabetes, which translates to almost 40 million people. The demand for insulin is high, and rBIO has a way to create it — and at 30 percent less cost.

This is just the tip of the iceberg — the world of synthetic biology application is endless.

“Now that we can design and manipulate biology in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Owen says, "we’re really only limited by our own imagination.”

Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves programing biology to create and redesign natural elements. While it sounds like science fiction, Owen compares it to any other type of technology.

“Biology really is a type of software,” he says. “Phones and computers at their core run on 1s and 0s. In biology, it’s kind of the same thing, but instead of two letters, it’s four — A, C, T, and G.”

“The cool thing about biology is the software builds the hardware,” he continues. “You put that code in there and the biology builds in and of itself.”

Owen says the industry of synthetic biology has been rising in popularity for years, but the technology has only recently caught up.

“We’re exploring a brave new world — there’s no doubt about that,” Owen says.

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