Solugen claims a spot on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Andrew Chang of United Airlines Ventures, Omair Tariq of Cart.com, and Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt of Solugen. Photos courtesy

4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from aviation to biotech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures

Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

When it comes to the future of aviation — namely, making it more sustainable, a rising tide lifts all boats. Or, in this case, planes.

Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, explains that working together is the key for advancing sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. That's why United Airlines started the Sustainable Flight Fund, a $200 million initiative with support from industry leaders, including Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, JPMorgan Chase, Honeywell, Aramco Ventures, Bank of America, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Ventures, and several others.

"We all recognize that we may compete in our core business, but with the importance of sustainable aviation fuel and given that it's an industry that doesn't exist — you can't compete for something that doesn't exist — let's collaborate and work together to explore technologies that can directly or indirectly support the commercialization and production of sustainable aviation fuel," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Read more.

Omair Tariq, founder and CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq's Cart.com is coming home. Photo via Cart.com

While originally founded in Houston in 2020, Cart.com has called Austin home for the past two years. Now, the scaling software company is coming home.

Cart.com, a tech company providing commerce and logistical solutions for businesses, announced today that its corporate headquarters has returned to Houston amid its rapid growth.

“I couldn’t be happier to bring Cart.com back home to Houston as we continue to revolutionize how merchants sell and fulfill products to meet customers anywhere they are,” Cart.com Founder and CEO Omair Tariq says in a news release. “The idea for Cart.com was born in Houston and we’ve always maintained a strong local presence with the majority of our executive team and board based here. As our customer mix increasingly moves upmarket and our own needs evolve, I’m confident Houston has what we need as we look towards the next stage of Cart.com’s growth story.” Read more.

Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, co-founders of Solugen

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. Read more.

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 founders named winners for 2023 Entrepreneur of the Year awards

winner, winner

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.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Gaurab Chakrabarti of Solugen, Andy Grolnick of Graylog, and Stuart Corr of Pumps and Pipes. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from software to biotech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen

Solugen has announced two major partnerships. Photo via solugentech.com

Solugen had a busy week. The Houston-based company that makes sustainable chemicals announced two new partnerships.

Solugen and Sasol Chemicals, a business unit of Saslo Ltd., revealed that they are working together to explore commercialization of sustainably-made home and personal care products. Read more.

Later last week, Solugen announced that it has scored a partnership with ADM to build a biomanufacturing facility adjacent to an existing corn complex in Marshall, Minnesota. Read more.

Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog

Graylog, a Houston SaaS company, has new fuel to scale and develop its product. Photo via Graylog

A Houston software-as-a-service company has secured $39 million in financing and announced its latest upgrade to its platform.

Graylog, which has created an innovative platform for cybersecurity and IT operations, raised equity funding with participation from new investor Silver Lake Waterman and existing investors Piper Sandler Merchant Banking and Harbert Growth Partners leading the round.

“The growth we are seeing globally is a response to our team’s focus on innovation, a superior user experience, low total cost of ownership, and strong execution from our Go-To-Market and Customer Success teams,” Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, says in a news release. “We expect this momentum to continue as Graylog expands its reach and raises its profile in the security market.” Read more.

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes

A Houston expert shares reasons to swap screen time for extended reality. Photo via pumpsandpipes.org

Virtual and augmented reality are having a moment, as Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes, explains in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The COVID-19 pandemic saw an unprecedented shift to even more screen time and interactions using remote video communication platforms," he writes. "It was also around this time that wireless virtual reality headsets were, for the first time ever, economically accessible to the consumer due to the large push of one multinational corporation. Fast forward to 2023, there are even more companies beginning to enter the market with new extended reality (XR) headsets (i.e. virtual, mixed, and augmented reality) that offer spatial computing – the ability for computers to blend into the physical worlds (amongst other things)."Read more.

Houston-based Solugen will build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility in the Midwest thanks to a new strategic partnership. Photo courtesy of ADM

Houston sustainable chemicals unicorn to build Midwestern biomanufacturing facility

making moves

Solugen has scored a partnership with a global company to build a biomanufacturing facility adjacent to an existing corn complex in Marshall, Minnesota.

Solugen, a Houston company that's designed a process that converts plant-derived substances into essential materials, has announced its newest strategic partnership with sustainable solutions company ADM (NYSE:ADM). The partnership includes plans for Solugen to build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility next to an existing ADM facility in the Midwest. The two companies will collaborate on producing biomaterials to replace fossil fuel-based 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,” Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, says 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.”

The company plans to begin on-site construction early next year, with plans to startup in the first half of 2025. The project should create at least 40 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction positions.

“Sustainability is one of the enduring global trends powering ADM’s growth and underpinning the strategic evolution of our Carbohydrate Solutions business,” Chris Cuddy, president of ADM’s Carbohydrate Solutions business, says in the release. “ADM is one of the largest dextrose producers in the world, and this strategic partnership will allow us to further diversify our product stream as we continue to support plant-based solutions spanning sustainable packaging, pharma, plant health, construction, fermentation, and home and personal care.”

Founded in 2016 by Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, Solugen's carbon-negative molecule factory, named the Bioforge, uses its chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels. The manufacturing process is carbon neutral, and Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors that believe in the technology's potential.

“The initial phase of the project will significantly increase Solugen’s manufacturing capacity, which is critical for commercializing our existing line of molecules and kicks off plans for a multi-phase large-scale U.S. Bioforge buildout,” Hunt, CTO of Solugen, says in the release. “The increase in capacity will also free up our Houston operation for research and development efforts into additional molecules and market applications.”

The project should create at least 40 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction positions.

"As a community with a strong foundation of agriculture and innovation, we look forward to welcoming Solugen to Marshall. This industry-leading facility will serve as a powerful economic driver for the city, creating new jobs and diversifying our industry,” City of Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes says in the statement. "We are thankful for ADM’s longstanding commitment and impact to Marshall, which has paved the way for this remarkable partnership and continues to further economic growth to our region."

It's the second major company partnership announcement Solugen has made this month, with a new arrangement with Sasol being secured last week.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Solugen and Sasol have entered into a strategic partnership. Photo via Getty Images

Sustainability startup based in Houston scores major corporate partnership

teaming up

A Houston company that's creating cleaner chemicals with little to no impact on the environment has scored a partnership with a major chemicals producer.

Solugen and Sasol Chemicals, a business unit of Saslo Ltd., revealed that they are working together to explore commercialization of sustainably-made home and personal care products.

“This agreement is an example of our approach of partnering to find innovative solutions for our customers,” Jonathan Ward, senior manager of Strategy and Sustainable Growth for Sasol’s Essential Care Chemicals business division, says in a news release. “Our focus is delivering high-performing products with lower carbon footprints at competitive prices, and we are eager to see how Solugen’s products might help us do that.”

Founded in 2016 by Sean Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, Solugen's carbon-negative molecule factory, named the Bioforge, uses a chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels. The manufacturing process is carbon neutral, and Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors that believe in the technology's potential.

"We are thrilled to partner with Sasol Chemicals, one of the world’s largest producers of surfactants, to drive positive impact in the home and personal care market,” Chakrabarti, CEO of Solugen, says in the release. “Sasol’s commitment to sustainability makes it an ideal partner for Solugen. We look forward to leveraging our combined strengths in technology, production, and market development to meet increasing consumer demand for our high-performance, bio-based solutions.”

Chakrabarti shared some of the secrets to Solugen's success and early partnerships at a SXSW panel earlier this year. The company was also recently named a finalist in the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.