The opening of the pilot plant marks the debut of Cemvita’s eCO2 business as a wholly owned subsidiary. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Cleantech startup Cemvita has set up a pilot plant in its hometown of Houston to develop technology for converting carbon emissions as feedstock to make products like fertilizer, plastics, methane, and fuel.

The opening of the pilot plant marks the debut of Cemvita’s eCO2 business as a wholly owned subsidiary. The term eCO2 refers to equivalent carbon dioxide, or a way to measure a combination of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

With a capacity of more than 14,000 gallons, the plant is producing eCO2 oil, an alternative to soybean oil. The company already is shipping samples of eCO2 products to customers, including renewable-fuel companies and plastics manufacturers.

Cemvita says the biofuel industry is facing feedstock shortages and price fluctuations. Biofuel feedstocks produce starches or sugars that can be converted to produce ethanol, while others produce oil that can be used in biodiesel production, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program.

“Traditional biofuels, including renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, have relied on oils derived from crops, such as soybean and corn, as well as recycled vegetable oils,” Cemvita says. “As demand grows for petroleum-free alternatives, feedstock is in short supply and must compete with food markets. Crops of soybeans, sugar, and corn use huge swaths of land, and the raw materials require extensive refining — two factors that impede the processes from being sustainable.”

By contrast, eCO2 plants like Cemvita’s can supply feedstock production with minimal land and electricity requirements, and without relying on hydrogen or sunlight, the company says. Furthermore, the output of eCO2 plants is designed to carbon-negative, not just carbon-neutral.

Cemvita’s eCO2 biomanufacturing platform uses engineered microbes that absorb and convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks and finished products.

“The energy transition requires completely new, cost-effective approaches for heavy industry,” Charlie Nelson, chief operating officer of Cemvita, says in a news release. “We built this next-generation pilot plant in response to strong demand from … partners who are actively seeking sustainable solutions to the … feedstock shortage.”

Brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi founded Cemvita in 2017.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

Cemvita has some news regarding its C-level execs. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston biotech company expands leadership team

growing biz

An innovative Houston startup that's working with energy companies to decarbonize their operations has made changes to its C-suite.

Tara Karimi, who co-founded Cemvita with her brother Moji, has transition to the company's chief science officer. Liz Dennett has been hired to Karimi's previous role of CTO. The changes enable Karimi to focus on leading Cemvita's scientific research and development efforts as well as participating in driving innovation within the biotech industry as a whole, according to the company's press release.

"I'm excited to take on the role of chief science officer at Cemvita and what it represents for our company's growth," says Karimi in the release. "As chief science officer, I look forward to shaping policy and driving the conversation around the role of biotechnology in the energy transition."

As CTO, Dennett will lead the development of Cemvita's unique biotech products that tap into microbes to decarbonize operations on energy plants. Most recently, Dennett was vice president of data architecture and data engineering at Wood Mackenzie. She previously worked in tech and sustainability-focused roles at Hess Corp., Biota Technology, and Amazon Web Services.

“Working with biological systems presents a unique challenge but also a unique opportunity," says Dennett in the release. "It’s uniquely difficult to go from benchtop to in-situ reactors or oil wells with microbes and to achieve the kind of incredible results that we’re seeing in the lab. You need to build teams with deep specializations in chemistry, biology, energy systems, and geology.”

Dennett, who has her PhD and Master's from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has served on Cemvita's advisory board for about a year, will report to CEO Moji Karimi directly.

“I know that Tara and Liz are going to make history at Cemvita,” says Moji Karimi in the release. “With 15 years of experience using data-driven approaches to solve pressing energy challenges, Liz brings to bear the kind of creativity and expertise that can quickly and meaningfully advance Cemvita’s impact on the Energy Transition.”

At a recent SXSW panel, four Houston energy experts discussed the importance of research, commercialization, and more in Houston to drive the energy transition. Photo via Getty Images

Experts address Houston's energy transition role — from research to commercialization

Houston @ SXSW

Every part of the energy industry is going to have a role in the energy transition — from the universities where the research and development is happening to the startups and the incumbent industry leaders, as a recent SXSW panel discussed.

“We are well known in Houston for being the energy capital of the world," Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, says as moderator of the panel. "The industry typically comes together with stakeholders to think about the solutions and how to solve this dual challenge of continuing to provide more energy to the world but doing it in a way that significantly reduces emissions at the same time.”

The panel, entitled "Ground Zero: Creating Pathways from Research to Scale Deployment," was put on by HETI, an organization under the Greater Houston Partnership, and took place Sunday, March 12, in Austin at SXSW.

“I often say that I believe Houston is ground zero for the transition because we have this unique combination of assets, infrastructure, innovation, research at universities, and a collective understanding of the importance of energy to people’s lives that allows us to tackle this problem in new ways," she continues.

Sticker was joined by Paul Cherukuri, vice president for innovation at Rice University; Juliana Garaizar, chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs; and Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. The panel highlighted the challenges facing Houston as it promises to lead the energy transition.

For Cherukuri, whose innovation-focused position was newly created when he was appointed to it last August, it's a pivotal moment for research institutions.

"It's really an exciting time in Houston because universities are changing," says Cherukuri. "Rice University itself is changing in dramatic ways, and it's a great opportunity to really plug into the energy transition inside of Houston."

The role he plays, as he explains, is to connect Rice innovators to the rest of the city and the world.

"We have to partner through the accelerators as well as with with companies who can catch what we've made and take it to scale," he continues. "That's uniquely something that we can do in Houston. It's not something that a lot of cities can do."

Representing the scaling efforts is Greentown Labs, and Garaizar explains how the Massachusetts-based organization, which has its second outpost in Houston, connects its member companies to corporate partners that can become funders, pilot partners, customers, and more. But scaling can only be accomplished with the right technologies and the proper funding behind them.

"Sixty percent of the technologies that are going to be used to decarbonize the world haven't yet been invented," she says on the panel. "So, there's a huge pull for technology right now. And we see people who are only on the private equity space now finally invested in a lot of earlier series like series A, but there's still some road to to be made there."

Houston-based Cemvita Factory is in the scale phase, and Karimi explains how she's actively working with companies to apply the company's unique biotechnology to convert CO2 to natural resources to accommodate each customer's needs. Cemvita is on the front lines of interacting with incumbent energy businesses that play a major role in the future of energy.

"The way we communicate with energy companies, we tell them that us to be the innovation arm for you and we work together," Karimi says. "I think it's everybody needs to understand it's a transition. There is no way to just change the way that chemicals are produced just immediately and replace it with something new. It's a transition that needs both aspects."

The United and Occidental investment arms are planning to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston biotech startup scores $5M to fuel sustainable aviation innovation

seeing green

Houston cleantech startup Cemvita Factory has scored a $5 million investment from United Airlines Ventures, the venture capital fund of the Chicago-based airline.

The equity investment is aimed at propelling commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel through a process involving carbon dioxide (CO2) and synthetic microbes.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum that’s a founding investor in Cemvita, and United Airlines Ventures are financing the startup’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport.

If that work pans out, the United and Occidental investment arms plan to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. The joint venture might include construction of plants for the production of sustainable aviation fuel.

Sustainable aviation fuel, known as SAF, is an alternative to jet fuel that uses non-petroleum feedstock and offers lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita Factory relies on synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels, including SAF. The startup, founded in 2017, is among the first companies to employ this technology to support heavy-industry decarbonization and find ways to take advantage of microbiology to convert CO2 into fuel.

“The use of SAF is a promising approach that we believe can significantly reduce global emissions from aviation and further decarbonization initiatives to combat climate change,” Richard Jackson, president of operations for U.S. onshore resources and carbon management at Occidental, says in a news release.

Cemvita is the third SAF-related startup to receive an investment from United Airlines Ventures.

The partnership among Cemvita, Occidental, and United is among many initiatives seeking to ramp up production of SAF. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies to develop a strategy for scaling SAF technology.

The global SAF market is projected to grow from $219 million in 2021 to more than $15.7 billion by 2030, according to Research and Markets.

The International Air Transport Association says more than 370,000 flights have been fueled by SAF since 2016. Over 26.4 million gallons of SAF were produced last year.

Last month in France, aircraft manufacturer Airbus flew a A380 test jet for about three hours with one of the four engines operating solely on SAF. The three other engines ran on conventional fuel.

In December 2021, United flew a 737 MAX 8 jet from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Washington Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C., with one of the two engines operating only on SAF. It was the first commercial flight with passengers aboard to use SAF in that capacity. The other engine ran on conventional fuel.

United CEO Scott Kirby, who was aboard the historic flight, said the flight was “not only a significant milestone for efforts to decarbonize our industry, but when combined with the surge in industry commitments to produce and purchase alternative fuels, we’re demonstrating the scalable and impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.”

For now, airlines are allowed to use up SAF for up to 50 percent of the fuel on commercial flights.

The brother-sister team at Houston-based Cemvita Factory is celebrating its series A initial closing. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based carbon negative biotech startup closes series A round

money moves

A promising Houston startup using biotechnology to reduce carbon emissions is celebrating the initial closing of its series A fundraising round.

Cemvita Factory announced the news of its round closing, but didn't disclose the amount raised. 8090 Partners, a new investment group of entrepreneurs turned investors, led the round. Existing investor Oxy Low Carbon Ventures also contributed, along with Seldor Capital, Climate Capital, and others.

Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, the company's technology biomimics photosynthesis to take carbon dioxide and turn it into something else. Cemvita uses this synthetic biology to decarbonize heavy industry across chemical manufacturing, mining, and oil and gas.

"Decarbonizing heavy industry is one of the most critical challenges in addressing climate change," says Moji Karimi, who serves as CEO, in a news release. "Synthetic biology is now primed to revolutionize heavy industries because of its inherent low-carbon advantages, and Cemvita is taking the lead in identifying and derisking the key applications."

Cemvita is currently working. with a number of clients — including Oxy, which announced its pilot in April — to reduce their carbon footprints.

"We believe the adoption rate and market size growth of our target applications will only accelerate due to the urgency for a low-carbon energy transition," Karimi continues. "The future of manufacturing will be low-carbon biomanufacturing and the future of mining will be sustainable biomining."

According to the release, the fresh funds will go toward launching Cemvita's bio-hydrogen solution, as well as to support construction and operation of a bio-ethylene pilot plant with Oxy. The pilot project, which reported success in the lab, is expected to scale.

"While synthetic biology has proven to be effective in re-imagining food and proteins, we've long held a firm belief in synthetic biology's promise in the heavy industrial space, but have waited until we've seen the right technology and team to drive real innovation in the sector," says Rayyan Islam, partner at 8090 Partners, in the release. "Cemvita's technology is a fundamental game-changer that provides a real economic solution and major players across heavy industry have taken serious notice."

It's not just investors and industrial players who have taken notice. Cemvita won the recent GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge from Cleantech.org. The company was also selected as a cohort member at Carbon2Value Initiative.

"Cemvita's technology is truly revolutionary in its use of CO2 and as a resource to provide viable economic solutions as more and more companies seek ways to reduce their carbon footprint. We remain impressed and excited about Cemvita's technology's positive impact on Earth and beyond," says Sidney N. Nakahodo, founder and general partner of Seldor Capital, in the release.

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, which biomimics photosynthesis to turn carbon emissions into feedstock, has been selected for a new international accelerator. Photo courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Houston startup selected for international carbontech accelerator

the future of climatech

A new international accelerator focused on the commercialization of carbontech has announced its new cohort — and one Houston-based company has made the cut.

Cemvita Factory has been accepted into the Carbon to Value Initiative, a recently launched accelerator supported by The Urban Future Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Greentown Labs, and Fraunhofer USA. The program is focused on supporting companies with technologies that capture, convert, and store carbon dioxide (CO₂) into valuable end products or services, according to a news release.

"In addition to being absolutely necessary to stave off dangerous climate impacts, carbontech innovations represent a potential $3 trillion market opportunity," says Pat Sapinsley, managing director at the Urban Future Lab, in the news release. "We are excited to welcome 10 startups, each proposing different business models and technology innovations to realize that opportunity."

Cemvita Factory, which was founded by siblings Tara and Moji Karimi in 2017, has created a way to biomimic photosynthesis to take CO2 and turn it into something usable for its energy clients, like feedstocks. Cemvita has 30 different molecules its technology can produce and works with the likes of BHP, Oxy, and more.

"We are excited to represent Houston in the first cohort for the Carbon to Value Initiative," Moji Karimi tells InnovationMap. "We want to send a message that Houston is not just the Oil and Gas capital of the world, but also the center of gravity for a sustainable Energy Transition."The C2V Initiative selected 10 startups out of over 130 applications from 26 countries. The cohort has technologies ranging from carbon utilization product and process innovations to carbon capture and carbon sequestration solutions.

Cemvita isn't alone in repping the Lone Star State. San Antonio-based CarbonFree, which has commercial technologies that capture and convert industrial CO2 emissions into minerals for sale or storage, also made the cohort.

The other eight non-Texas companies are:

  • Air Company, based in New York City, transforms CO2 into high-purity alcohols that can be used in spirits, sanitizers, and a variety of consumer industries.
  • Reykjavík, Iceland-based Carbfix provides a natural and permanent carbon storage solution by turning CO2 into stone underground.
  • CarbonQuest, based in New York City, provides decarbonization technologies and solutions for buildings with a focus on modular carbon capture.
  • Toronto, Canada-based CERT converts CO2 to chemicals such as ethylene via electrolysis.
  • Made of Air, based in Berlin, Germany creates drop-in ready, durable thermoplastics using carbon captured by biomass.
  • Oakland, California-based Mars Materials develops a new pathway for carbon fiber production using CO2 as a raw material.
  • San Francisco-based Patch is a platform for negative emissions.
  • Planetary Hydrogen, based in Dartmouth, Canada, combines hydrogen production with CO2 sequestration via ocean air capture.

The program kicks off at a virtual event onMay 6 from 3-5 p.m. The six-month program will provide its cohort with a customized curriculum, hands-on mentorship, and knowledge-sharing sessions with C2V Initiative's Carbontech Leadership Council— an invitation-only group of international corporate, academic, and government thought leaders.

The cohort will also receive complimentary membership and access to the Greentown Labs community, which includes is recently opened facility in Houston.

"We know that to effectively address the climate crisis and mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to rapidly scale and deploy carbontech solutions to accelerate the energy transition," says Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs. "We're proud to support these startups from all over the world and look forward to the collaborations that will spark among the startups and our CLC members."

Listen to Cemvita Factory's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast below.


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Houston health care institution secures $100M for expansion, shares renderings

fresh funding

Baylor College of Medicine has collected $100 million toward its $150 million fundraising goal for the college’s planned Lillie and Roy Cullen Tower.

The $100 million in gifts include:

  • A total of $30 million from The Cullen Foundation, The Cullen Trust for Health Care, and The Cullen Trust for Higher Education.
  • $12 million from the DeBakey Medical Foundation
  • $10 million from the Huffington Foundation
  • More than $45 million from members of Baylor’s Board of Trustees and other community donors, including the M.D. Anderson Foundation, the Albert and Margaret Alkek Foundation, and The Elkins Foundation.

“The Cullen Trust for Health Care is very honored to support this building along with The Cullen Foundation and The Cullen Trust for Higher Education,” Cullen Geiselman Muse, chair of The Cullen Trust for Health Care, says in a news release. “We cannot wait to see what new beginnings will come from inside the Lillie and Roy Cullen Tower.”

The Baylor campus is next to Texas Medical Center’s Helix Park, a 37-acre project. Rendering courtesy of BCM

The Lillie and Roy Cullen Tower is set to open in 2026. The 503,000-square-foot tower is the first phase of Baylor’s planned Health Sciences Park, an 800,000-square-foot project that will feature medical education and research adjacent to patient care at Baylor Medicine and Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center on the McNair Campus.

The Baylor campus is next to Texas Medical Center’s Helix Park, a 37-acre project that will support healthcare, life sciences, and business ventures. Baylor is the anchor tenant in the first building being constructed at Helix Park.

“To really change the future of health, we need a space that facilitates the future,” says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO, and executive dean of Baylor. “We need to have a great building to recruit great talent. Having a place where our clinical programs are located, where our data scientists are, next to a biotech development center, and having our medical students all integrated into that environment will allow them to be ready in the future for where healthcare is going.”

In the 1940s, Lillie and Roy Cullen and the M.D. Anderson Foundation were instrumental in establishing the Texas Medical Center, which is now the world’s largest medical complex.

“Baylor is the place it is today because of philanthropy,” Klotman says. “The Cullen family, the M.D. Anderson Foundation, and the Albert and Margaret Alkek Foundation have been some of Baylor’s most devoted champions, which has enabled Baylor to mold generations of exceptional health sciences professionals. It is fitting that history is repeating itself with support for this state-of-the-art education building.”

The Cullen Foundation donated $30 million to the project. Rendering courtesy of BCM

Texas angel investor group expands to make impact in Houston

angels flying in

An angel investment network founded in Austin has announced its entrance into the Houston market.

SWAN Impact Network, which focuses on funding early-stage, impact-driven startups, announced that Houston will be its next market expansion. Founded in 2016, the organization expanded to Dallas two years ago. Now, SWAN is hitting the Bayou City and is actively looking for potential angel investors to join its network.

"Houston is the logical place for us to go because a lot of our deep expertise we developed is grounded around life science, health and wellness, and environmental," Bob Bridge, executive director of SWAN, tells InnovationMap. "There's a lot of people in Houston in the spaces where we've spent most of our time and money."

SWAN, originally founded as the Southwest Angel Network, has grown from several investors to over 80 across Texas. The investors, who meet virtually, range from former entrepreneurs, seasoned investors, and first time angels.

Valerie Tompson, who's serving as the Houston market lead, is an example of someone who was drawn to SWAN's mission, even though she had never invested in startups before.

"I was intrigued by the idea of being able to invest in companies that are making a difference in the world — and it's not a charitable donation," she says, explaining that joining a network allowed for her to learn the ropes and understand the process.

Bridge says they are looking to add 20 Houston investors over the next year. He says they are also interested in adding on volunteer analysts to help in the diligence work of the group. Whether you're a frequent investor or just interested in learning more, SWAN's door is open.

"We encourage new angels not to invest at first — go with us for a ride for six months, learn how we think about companies, see a bunch of companies pitch," Bridge says. "Once they start to get the comfort level up, then they can start making investors. We're very much about helping new angels get comfortable."

Currently, SWAN has two Houston startups — Scriptly Rx and Eisana — in its investment portfolio. In addition to the investor network, SWAN, a nonprofit organization, also has its SWAN Impact Philanthropic Fund that also invests in impact-driven businesses.

SWAN is hosting an event at the Ion on Wednesday, May 31, at 6 pm to celebrate its new Houston expansion, as well as to host a panel discussing impact investing. The event is free to attend, and registration is open.

Valerie Tompson, Houston chapter lead, and Bob Bridge, executive director, will be at the May 31 event. Photos courtesy of SWAN