At a research facility just outside of Houston, scientists have found a plant that has COVID-19 treatment potential. Photo courtesy of iBio

The original version of this story included some factual inaccuracies due to misinformation from a source. The story below has been corrected.

In a 130,000 square-foot facility outside of Bryan-College Station, iBio is growing the makings of new types of therapeutics for fibrosis, cancer, and even COVID-19.

The company, which moved its headquarters from New York to Texas in July, uses novel biopharma methods to produce the vital molecules and antigens used for vaccines and other types of medical treatments through plants in a fast, sustainable way.

Other methods of creating biopharmaceutical require scientists to engineer cells to create a desired protein, which can be one of the most time consuming parts of the process, IBio's CEO Tom Isett explains. However, through iBio's FastPharming method, the team let's the plants do most of the work.

IBio introduces an Agrobacterium carrying a desired gene to manipulate the plant's DNA.

"[The bacteria] takes over the machinery of the plant leaves and it then produces the protein of interest or the biopharmaceutical that we were going to want to make for people," Isett says.

IBio then harvests the leaves and purifies the proteins to make the biopharmaceutical of interest. The entire process can save anywhere from six to 18 months in development, he estimates.

Too, if there's demand for more of the product, through this process, all scientists need to do is grow more plants.

"We have a linear scale up, it's very straightforward," says Peter Kipp, iBio's VP of translational science and alliance management. "And using some of the other competing methodologies, as you go to a bigger scale, you have new technical problems that you have to solve, but we don't."

The team discovered that an Australian species of the tobacco plant could be one of their biggest conduits in their process.

"It just grows like a weed. And that's why we like it," Kipp says.

The plant expends most of its energy in creating its leaves, where IBio extracts most of its proteins from. The plants are grown in the company's indoor, vertical hydroponic facility and are able to be harvested about every six weeks, and (it's important to note) does not contain nicotine.

IBio used their FastPharming process to introduce two vaccine candidates and a therapeutic in about six week's time. However, Isett says they're not just a COVID-19 vaccine company.

"We're mostly focused in other areas. But when [COVID] showed up, we did want to go in and see if we could address it using the speed of our system," he says.

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

Houston startup raises $30M, plans to be 'next iconic chemical company' with plant-based alternatives

climate tech

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.'"

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Houston neighbor clocks as one of the best U.S. cities for remote workers

working from home

Working remotely is increasingly part of the modern lifestyle, and a new report cements a Houston neighbor as one of the top places for remote workers.

Apartment search website RentCafe ranks Conroe No. 15 in its Top 50 Cities for Remote Workers, released in November.

The study looked at 150 U.S. cities, comparing them across five main categories: leisure, affordability, comfort, rental demand, and remote work readiness. Scores were based on 19 metrics, from cost of living, availability of apartments with short-term leases, and rental demand to coworking spaces, percentage of remote workers, and internet speed.

"With remote work migration on the rise, we uncovered the most desirable cities to move to across the nation if you work remotely," the website says. It suggests that remote workers on the move "look toward the South and Southeast, where we identified several cities that offer the perfect balance between comfort, value, leisure and remote work-readiness."

Conroe ranks best for:

  • Number of high-end units
  • Share of new apartments
  • Number of apartments with access to sports amenities

Three other Texas cities join Conroe in the top 15. College Station (No. 9) makes the cut for remote workers due to its high availability of short-term rentals, large population of rentals, and access to sports amenities.

In the Austin metro area, both Austin (No. 13) and Round Rock (No. 11) appear, thanks in part to access to internet connection, average download speed, and the number of remote workers.

Lower on the list, but still in the top 50, are: Plano (No. 23), Lubbock (No. 27), Houston (No. 35), Amarillo (No. 36), San Antonio (No. 41), Dallas (No. 42), and Fort Worth (No. 46).The top city for remote workers, according to RentCafe, is Greenville, South Carolina.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Walmart, Houston startup team up to bring small biz products to shelves

holiday shopping teamwork

Thanks to a pop-up shop marketplace platform, small businesses will now have the opportunity to have their goods displayed in one of the country’s largest national retail stores.

Through a strategic partnership between Houston-based Popable and Walmart, local businesses to set up shop for short-term leasing and bring brand new eyes to their products.

“Supporting small businesses has always been a priority for Walmart,” says Darryl Spinks, senior director of retail services for Walmart, in a news release. “We are proud to work with Popable to offer local brands an opportunity to grow inside our stores. This is a great example of our focus on offering services unique to the neighborhoods we serve through our store of the community initiative.”

Popable has assisted brands secure qualified spaces, get education and resources, and build community, and connections that are vital to helping small businesses expand their visibility in the marketplace. The platform simultaneously helps retail landlords find qualified retailers from a directory of tens of thousands of brands to fill vacancies and drive traffic to their shopping centers.

For those small businesses interested, they can be paired with their local participating Walmart to connect and enter into an agreeable temporary leasing agreement by signing up on the platform’s official website. The businesses will set up right in front of the store generally where the customer service areas and salons tend to be. While the partnership isn’t aimed to be a pilot program, Popable will be giving Walmart the chance to infuse some local flavor into the stores from the community.

With the holidays around the corner, and small businesses looking to gain back revenues lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to display and sell their products at Walmart can be highly beneficial to recoup profits, and unload new and extra products to a larger audience.

“Going into the holidays the timing is pretty good for a lot of brands looking to move some access inventory that they have loaded up from last year, but this (hopefully with Walmart) will be a year-round thing,” says Popable CEO and co-founder Scott Blair. “The pop-up opportunities we’ve been seeing with brands doing reach outs so far, a lot of them are looking for stuff into January and February too.”

Scott Blair, CEO and co-founder of Popable, says he hopes to continue the partnership with Walmart. Photo courtesy of Popable