Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt were originally named regional winners in this year's competition this summer along with nine other Houston entrepreneurs. Photos via solugen.com

Houston’s Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, the founders of the transformative chemical manufacturing company Solugen, have been named EY’s US National Award winners for Entrepreneur of the Year.

Solugen, also recently named a finalist in the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards, is an environmentally friendly approach that relies on smaller chemical refineries that helps in reducing costs and transportation-related emissions. Some of their noted accomplishments includes innovations like the proprietary reactor, dubbed the Bioforge, which is a carbon-negative molecule factory and manufacturing process produces zero wastewater or emissions compared with traditional petrochemical refineries.The Bioforge uses a chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels.

Chakrabarti and Hunt were originally named regional winners in this year's competition this summer along with nine other Houston entrepreneurs.

Founded in 2016 by Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors like Sasol that believe in the technology's potential. The company is valued at reportedly over $2 billion. Solugen is headquartered in Houston, not because it is the hometown of Chakrabarti, but for what Houston brings to the company.

“There’s no way our business could succeed in the Bay Area," Chakrabarti said in a 2023 interview at SXSW where he detailed the offers Hunt and he received to move the business out of state. “For our business, if you look at the density of chemical engineers, the density of our potential customers, and the density of people who know how to do enzyme engineering, Houston happened to be that perfect trifecta for us.”

Even though they are headquartered in Houston, Solugen recently secured plans to expand to the Midwest, as in November they announced its newest strategic partnership with sustainable solutions company ADM (NYSE:ADM) in Marshall, Minnesota. The partnership includes plans for Solugen to build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility next to an existing ADM facility , with the two companies working together on producing biomaterials to replace fossil fuel products.

“The strategic partnership with ADM will allow Solugen to bring our chemienzymatic process to a commercial scale and meet existing customer demand for our high-performance, cost-competitive, sustainable products,” Chakrabarti said in a news release. “As one of the few scaled-up and de-risked biomanufacturing assets in the country, Solugen’s Bioforge platform is helping bolster domestic capabilities and supply chains that are critical in ensuring the U.S. reaches its ambitious climate targets.”

For Chakrabarti and Hunt, Solugen was born out of a 12-year friendship, and the journey began after a friendly card game. After an entrepreneurship contest at MIT, which earned them second place and a $10,000 prize, they invested the winnings to work on what would become Solugen, a proof-of-concept reactor with materials bought from a local home improvement store.

"We had a conviction that we were building something that could be impactful to the rest of the world,” Chakrabarti said at SXSW in 2023.

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Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.

Annual student startup competition in Houston names teams for 2024

ready to pitch

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship announced the 42 student-led teams worldwide that will compete in the highly competitive Rice Business Plan Competition this spring.

The annual competition, known as one of the world’s largest and richest intercollegiate student startup competitions, will take place April 4 to 6 in Houston. Teams in this year's competition represent 35 universities from four countries, including two teams from Houston and four others from Texas.

Teams, made up of graduate students from a college or university anywhere in the world, will present their plans before 350 angel, venture capital, and corporate investors to compete for more than $1 million in prizes. Last year, teams were awarded $3.4 million in investment and in-kind prizes, the largest total awarded thus far in the decades-old competition after some investors doubled — or even tripled — down on investment awards.

The 2024 RBPC will focus on five categories: Energy, Cleantech and Sustainability; Hard Tech; Life Sciences and Healthcare Solutions; Digital Enterprise; Consumer Products and Services.

Invitees include:

  • AIRS ML, Imperial College London (United Kingdom)
  • Blaze Power, UCLA
  • ChiChi Foods, Washington University in St. Louis
  • CureWave Sciences, Rutgers University
  • CurveAssure, Johns Hopkins University
  • D.Sole, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Dendritic Health AI, Northwestern University
  • Dialysis Innovations, University of Michigan
  • FlowCellutions, University of Pittsburgh
  • HEXAspec, Rice University
  • HydroPhos Solutions, University of New Hampshire
  • Icorium Engineering Company, University of Kansas
  • Informuta, Tulane University
  • Kiwi Charge, York University (Canada)
  • Korion Health, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Limitless Aeronautics, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University
  • LiQuidium, University of Houston
  • Malleous, University of Pittsburgh
  • MesaQuantum, Harvard University
  • MineMe, University of Pennsylvania
  • NaviAI, Cornell University
  • NutriAI, Tufts University
  • OSPHIM, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • Overture Games, Northwestern University
  • OX SOX, University of Georgia
  • Oxylus Energy, Yale University
  • Palanquin Power, University of Texas at Austin
  • Paradigm Robotics, University of Texas at Austin
  • Particle-N, University of Connecticut
  • Poka Labs, Harvard University
  • Power2Polymer, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • ProPika, University of Arkansas
  • Protein Pints, Michigan State University
  • Samtracs, Oklahoma State University
  • Sancorda Medical, University of Texas at Dallas
  • Side Coach Sports, Baylor University
  • Socian AI, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Somnair, Johns Hopkins University
  • TouchStone, University of California, Berkeley
  • Vita Innovations, Stanford University
  • WattShift, University of Chicago
  • ZebraMD, UCLA

The companies join more than 700 RBPC alumns that have collectively raised more than $5.5 billion in funding. More than 269 RBPC companies are in business or have made successful exits, according to the Rice Alliance's website.

Last year, Texas A&M-based team FluxWorks took home $350,000 and won the competition based on judges scores. The company's technology includes magnetic gears that are four times quieter than standard with 99 percent efficiency.

Sygne Solutions and TierraClimate, two Rice-led teams, won second and fourth places, respectively. Zaymo, from Brigham Young University, took home the most in investment dollars. Click here to see the full list of 2023 teams.