How Two Young Scientists Built A $250 Million Business Using Yeast To Clean Up Wastewater
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fairly difficult
Houston-based Solugen is making cheaper, more effective industrial chemicals to help scrub everything from pools and hot tubs to oil and gas companies' wastewater. Up next: fertilizers.
A long standing poker game with a group of University of Texas Southwestern medical students in Dallas brought Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt together. Wenly Ruan, Chakrabarti's dissection lab partner and Hunt's then-girlfriend (now wife), was the link. But soon Chakrabarti, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate researching a drug candidate for pancreatic cancer, and Hunt, a graduate student in chemical engineering at MIT, were geeking out over science.

"Sean was terrible at poker," says Chakrabarti, now 31. Though Hunt kept losing, he continued to play for years, as he returned to Dallas from Boston to visit Ruan. And as they played, Chakrabarti and Hunt continued to talk. Chakrabarti was researching enzymes found in cancer cells that produce hydrogen peroxide, and he wondered if that process might apply to Hunt's research on improving traditional chemical manufacturing. Hunt scoffed at the idea. "I was like, 'There's no way an enzyme could be used in an industrial, long-scale chemical process,'" recalls Hunt, also 31. "But as we kept talking and diving into it, Gaurab convinced me."

"What's unique is that from essentially just a feedstock sugar, we can create a whole portfolio of chemicals," says Solugen cofounder Sean Hunt. Phil Kline for Forbes

Six years later, in 2016, Chakrabarti and Hunt submitted their idea for a new business, which they called Solugen, to an MIT pitch competition. They won $10,000 as a finalist. Those funds allowed them to buy PVC pipe from Home Depot and pumps off eBay to build their first reactor system. They grew gene-edited yeast to produce the enzymes Chakrabarti had discovered—sort of like a craft brewery for the $2 trillion global industrial chemicals market—and then used those enzymes to make hydrogen peroxide. In this way, the Houston-based startup brought biology to the oil patch, combining their innovative bio-based peroxide with other bio-based chemicals for use in everything from spa cleaning to disinfecting wipes to wastewater…
Alex Knapp
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