Solugen, which uses plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals, has raised an additional $30 million and is speculated to soon reach unicorn status. Photo via solugentech.com

While Forbes recently anointed Houston-based Solugen Inc. as one of the next billion-dollar "unicorns" in the startup world, Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti shrugs off the unicorn buzz.

Chakrabarti, a physician and scientist who's co-founder and CEO of the startup, concedes he doesn't know whether Solugen will be worth $1 billion or not. But he does know that the startup aspires to be a key competitor in the emerging "climate tech" sector, whose players strive to combat climate change. Chakrabarti estimates the climate-tech chemical space alone represents a global market opportunity valued at $1 trillion to $2 trillion per year.

Solugen's overarching goal in the climate-tech market: Replace petroleum-based chemicals with plant-based substitutes.

"I'd love it if we were the poster child that drives climate tech to be the next big, sexy trend," Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti acknowledges Solugen's investors, executives, and employees hope the startup succeeds financially. But success, he believes, goes beyond making money and plotting an exit strategy. Instead, Chakrabarti emphasizes "a shift in thinking" on climate tech that he says promises to transform the fledgling sector into a "true niche" that'll be "good for everyone."

"Who cares if people are all hyped up for the wrong reasons?" says Chakrabarti, referring to the unicorn speculation.

Solugen sits at the crossroads of biology and chemistry. In short, the startup taps into plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals and "decarbonize" the chemical industry.

"Quite simply, we want to become the next DowDuPont or the next iconic chemical company, but using principles of green chemistry instead of principles from petroleum chemistry," Chakrabarti says.

If Solugen does reach the icon stratosphere, Chakrabarti envisions it doing so on a speedy schedule. In the traditional petrochemical market, it can take 10 to 20 years to put a new product on the market, he says. "I don't have that kind of time. I'm a very impatient person," Chakrabarti says.

Gaurab Chakrabarti Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, isn't paying any mind to his company's predicted unicorn status — rather he's focusing on the difference he can make on reducing carbon emissions. Photo via solugentech.com

Spurred by that restlessness, Chakrabarti seeks to propel Solugen's products from concept to commercialization in the span of two years. He says the startup already has proven the ability to do that with its sugar-derived hydrogen peroxide product.

"We're going to continue to do that, and it would be great if we can continue demonstrating new [products] coming to market once a year," says Chakrabarti, who grew up in Sugar Land.

Solugen seems to have plenty of financial fuel to make that happen. In April, Solugen raised $30 million in venture capital as an add-on to its Series B funding, which initially closed May 2019. That brings its total VC haul to $68 million since it was founded in 2016, according to Forbes. The recent funding lifted the company's valuation to $250 million, putting it $750 million away from unicorn territory.

Chakrabarti doesn't dismiss the notion of an eventual IPO for Solugen but says being acquired isn't "terribly interesting to me."

"If you want to make money, you can always go be a banker," he notes.

Chakrabarti estimates Solugen will generate $30 million to $40 million in revenue this year, up from $12 million in 2019. Profit remains elusive, though, as the company pours its gains into R&D. The company graduated in 2017 from the Y Combinator startup accelerator. Aside from Y Combinator and Unicorn Venture Partners, investors include Founders Fund, Refactor Capital, Fifty Years, and KdT Ventures.

Solugen's current lineup features fewer than a half-dozen products, which are sold to industrial and government customers. Hundreds more products are in the pipeline for use in sectors like agriculture and energy, Chakrabarti says.

"It's one of the blessings and curses of this company — there's always something to work on, always something big to scale up," says Chakrabarti, who earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Working on selling Solugen's current products and developing its new products are 70 employees, located at its headquarters in Houston and its new production facility in Lubbock. By the end of this year, the startup should employ close to 100 people, Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti hesitates to identify Solugen's competitors, as he believes a perceived rival very well could end up becoming a partner.

"I think everyone eventually should be a partner of Solugen, not competition," he says. "It's an ideology that's actually the competition, an ideology like, 'We've always used petrochemistry. This is just how it's been done.'"

The Welch Foundation, led by Adam Kuspa, funds basic research across the state of Texas — research that's important both in and out of pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

Houston-based nonprofit leader believes COVID-19 will have long-term effects on important research

Q&A

It's Adam Kuspa's job to provide support to Texas researchers as they attempt to create innovative chemical and biochemical solutions for the betterment of mankind.

Formerly the dean of research at Baylor College of Medicine, Kuspa now serves as president of Houston-based Welch Foundation, which has, over the past several decades, provided nearly $800 million in research funding across the state.

Kuspa, through the organization, regularly sees revolutionary chemical discoveries being innovated in Texas across the 60 institutions he works with. It's usually an exciting job.

"I've spent my career, at least the last 15 years or so, helping other people do their research — before as being in research at Baylor College of Medicine," Kuspa tells InnovationMap. "I really enjoy enabling very, very smart people to do creative, innovative science. It's a lot of fun."

However, as the race to find a cure and vaccine to COVID-19 heats up, Kuspa — along with other researchers and scientists — is watching carefully to see how the disease and its to-be solutions will affect research and medical innovations as a whole.

"What people forget in the rush to get a drug out is that you could also make matters worse," he says. "Drugs don't automatically cure or are neutral. They can also do harm. So, you want to be careful not to make the situation worse."

Kuspa sat down with InnovationMap to discuss The Welch Foundation's mission, as well as some of his observations on potential cures for COVID-19 and what concerns he has.

InnovationMap: Tell me about the Welch Foundation and what role it plays in Texas?

Adam Kuspa: For over 65 years, the Welch Foundation has pursued its mandate based on Robert Welch's thought from the 1950s that chemistry was very important to the improvement of mankind. And so, our mandate is to fund foundational research in chemistry in the state of Texas, working through academic institutions throughout the state. We've done that consistently for the past 65 years through several programs.

IM: What type of research does the foundation fund usually?

AK: The research grant program gives grants to individual investigators, and we're doing about 300 to 400 continuously throughout the state of Texas. There's also block grants to departments to encourage students to become involved in chemical research. And we have other programs such as our endowed chair programs. We've given out about 40 endowed professorships, which support specific professors at individual institutions and their chemical research.

I should point out that chemistry research from our perspective is broadly defined and includes biochemistry of material sciences, et cetera. Currently our grant portfolio consists of 50 percent biomedical research grants, which is relevant to current current situation with COVID-19.

IM: How do you connect to Texas research institutions usually?

AK: We have fairly typical calls for applications for research grants or departmental grants and for our two award programs: the Welch Award in Chemistry, which is given out every year in Houston, and the Norman Hackerman Award, for junior faculty researchers in state of Texas.

A lot of the work is going out in the community to visit with the researchers and our academic institution partners. That, of course, has been curtailed, but typically we would visit any one of the 60 or so institutions that we support on a cycle of several years. So, that involves going to the chemistry departments, speaking with faculty, hearing how the research is going, and getting feedback on how our programs can be improved.

We also have an annual research conference, which unfortunately has been canceled this year, but typically draws 200 to 800 participants from around the state with speakers coming in around the world. This year, it was meant to be on neuroscience. Last October, the conference concerned genome editing. So, it's quite exciting, and the conferences, which are always held in Houston, are generally very well attended. They are a good way to start to interact with the scientific community in general.

IM: What has been the organization’s focus during the pandemic?

AK: We are obligated to fund foundational research in chemistry and allied fields, like biochemistry. So, we're not at liberty to fund development of therapies, for instance. However, I would say an interesting way to look at this is that we hear a lot about a search for a therapeutic for COVID-19 and, obviously, a search for vaccine — these begin with research.

Since it normally takes 15 to 18 years to bring a drug to market from first principles of how you're going to interrupt the human biology to effecting a cure, you're hearing a lot about testing existing drugs or their potential therapeutic effect on COVID-19. The reason we're able to do that is because we have a lot of drugs that are in the process of being developed and drugs that are already approved for human use. It's a lot more efficient to try to look at the potential utility of those already human-approved drugs and their potential effect on viral replication.

So, we sort of view our role as the Welch Foundation as funding that foundational research — either in drug development from a chemical perspective or in funding foundational work in how viruses attack the human body in the first place. And, although we give out grants for basic research, our investigators are pretty industrious. When there's a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of them turned their attention towards the problem at hand.

Another way that we've supported the general availability of potential therapeutics is that we've made a large grant to The Center for Drug Discovery at the Baylor College of Medicine directed by Martin Matzuck. And the reason we were interested in helping to get that center started is because they had an idea to make a drug discovery and development much more efficient and cost effective. That promotes a general capability of Houston and Texas in terms of being able to bring about potential therapeutics to wide range of diseases, but potentially for COVID-19 specifically.

IM: What’s the usual process of getting a drug from research stage to use?

AK: There are four phases of testing. Phase one is for safety, phase two is for dosing and potential efficacy, and phase three is for broad range of efficacy — large numbers of patients and trials that take hundreds of millions of dollars to perform. Approval by FDA occurs after phase three, but then there's actually a phase four study, which is following the drug for potential adverse effects once it is in common use by the public.

You may remember there's a drug called Vioxx — it's a very good pain reliever. But, in the phase four study, after millions of prescriptions were written already, it was found to cause rare heart problems and heart attacks. People were dying spontaneously, and it was hard to pin that specifically on Vioxx, but you can do it statistically from the phase four trial after the drug was introduced.

So, the reason you hear about hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 is because you sort of get the short circuit and skip those phases and jump right to phase four studies where you know it's basically safe and you roughly know how to dose. But what you don't though is how that approved drug can be used for particular indications like COVID-19 and how safe it is.

You can't actually jump the normal 18-year process, and with existing drugs you're still only at year 15, where you're got another few years to figure out how to actually use them in the context of the COVID-19.

IM: Scientists and researchers are working on solutions, but what are the challenges they are facing?

AK: That's a great question. Given that we have so many research grants around the state, we get input literally on an hourly basis from our grantees on the status of their research because of the interruption. And the short story is that all research has been shut down in the state of Texas except for research directly related to coronavirus.

Large biomedical research centers, which have hundreds of millions of dollars a year in external research funding going to cure a broad range of disease have shut all of their labs down, except for the few labs that are working directly on COVID-19. That includes vaccine discovery and production.

A lot of work has been wasted because often biological experiments take weeks and months of progression, and if can't complete the final steps, you'll have to start over.

IM: Do you think this will have a long-term effect on research?

AK: I think so. Science, as it turns out, is a very creative, human-interactive activity. It's actually much more social than people realize. It's not the individual scientist working at the lab bench only. It's a lot of travel, seminars given by out-of-town speakers, scientific conferences, gatherings of hundreds of people.

The annual neuroscience conference attracts 40,000 people every year from all over the world — and that's not happening. As far as we can tell, all scientific conferences have been canceled for the rest of 2020. When I talked to my colleagues and professors around the country, every out of town seminar has been canceled. So, the exchange of information that's been so vital to stimulate creativity and collaboration between laboratories isn't happening, and there are new venues have to be found to do that online. But there is going to be a limitation. I think people are adapting, and we'll just have to see how it unfolds.

The published literature is one to one-and-a-half years behind what's actually happening in the laboratory. So, the way people learn about what's going on — the failed experiments, the things you're trying out, the exciting new ideas — is generally through face-to-face interactions. And that happens by scientists traveling between universities and at conferences in the hallways between the formal sessions. That aspect is absolutely vital to the progress of science.

IM: What is something you want people to know about the basic research that the Welch Foundation is funding?

We need consistency and support for basic research because, during a pandemic, we want to have a cure, but we don't think about the hundreds of thousands of scientists across the country who are struggling to get funding for the basic research when there's not a pandemic.

Additionally, this basic research is also the engine for industry — particularly the biotech industry in Houston, and folks have been really working hard to try to ensure that there's an ecosystem for new companies to be formed out of Houston. I think part of the reason why we might survive this current oil glut as opposed to the mid 1980s is that the Houston economy is diversified with — not just with the port and NASA — but with biomedical research and patient care. In Houston, health care is the largest employer — it's larger than oil and gas. That kind of diversification is good for the economy and good for the innovation environment that people in Houston have tried really to make happen for the last 10 years or so.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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City launches public dashboard for tracking COVID-19 in Houston's wastewater

data points

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

Rice University rises with massive $100M gift for innovative new student center

student centered

Rice University's Owls are soaring of late, with the school just being named the top in Texas and No. 7 in the U.S. Now, the institution known as the "Ivy League of the South" is the recipient of a mammoth gift aimed at a game-changing student center.

The Moody Foundation has granted Rice University a massive $100 million for its planned Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity, which will replace Rice's current Memorial Center (RMC), and will become a new focal point for the university's 300-acre wooded campus, the school announced.

Notably, this new student center is designed by Sir David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates; the acclaimed architect's other works include the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Scheduled to break ground in early 2022 and construction completed in 2023, the brand-new Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity will maintain some elements of the old RMC, namely the chapel and cloisters. Students and staff can expect demolition of the rest of the existing RMC, per a press release.

Moody's $100 million grant matches the record for the largest gift in the university's history. (Last year, the Robert A. Welch Foundation donated $100 million to the school to establish the innovation-driven Welch Institute.) The Moody Foundation has contributed over $125 million to Rice since 1964, a press release notes.

As part of the Moody $100 million gift, a new Moody Fund for Student Opportunity will support an endowment dedicated to student programs "physically anchored in the new student center and elsewhere in the university," according to the school.

All this supports Rice's recently announced plans for a 20-percent expansion of the undergraduate student body by fall 2025, as CultureMap previously reported.

"We are extremely grateful for this extraordinary philanthropy in support of Rice students," said Rice president David Leebron in a statement. "This gift will enable our students to broaden their engagements and experiences while at Rice in ways that will empower their success throughout their lives. It will also enable us to both connect more deeply with Houston and with the world. This will be the epitome of what an inclusive and outward-looking student center should be."

Elle Moody, a trustee of both the Moody Foundation and Rice, added: "As a Rice University alumna, I know this gift will have a profound and lasting effect on the campus and its students. This investment is supporting much more than just a building. We're investing in every student, so they have access to pursue any endeavor whether it's leadership, artistic, athletic, global or more."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.