Imagine Chemistry Challenge Names Winners

More than 200 startups from around the world entered the competition

By Amanda Joshi, managing editor

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AkzoNobel, Deventer, The Netherlands, has announced the winners of its inaugural Imagine Chemistry Startup Challenge to help solve real-life chemistry-related challenges and to uncover sustainable opportunities for the company’s Specialty Chemicals business.

A jury made up of AkzoNobel business and R&D leaders selected 10 startups from 19 finalists to receive customized support to scale-up their processes and bring them to market. Three overall winners — Ecovia Renewables, Industrial Microbes and Renmatix, all from the United States — have been awarded joint development agreements (JDAs) with AkzoNobel’s Specialty Chemicals business.

Ecovia Renewables. Jeremy Minty and Drew Hertig represented the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company at the ceremony. The firm got the nod for its fermentation technology to make polyglutamic acid (PGA), which can be used to produce thickeners for personal care products and other applications.

Founded in 2014, Ecovia Renewables builds on research from the University of Michigan where Minty’s team designed, constructed and fine-tuned synthetic microbial ecosystems. “Our first proof-of-concept synthetic microbial ecosystem involved one-step production of isobutanol from lignocellulose. Since then, we’ve expanded to engineer microbial co-cultures that enable more efficient, cost-effective routes for producing a variety of biochemicals like PGA from renewable biomass resources,” says Hertig.

The company’s BioGel suite of PGA formulations can be tailored for many end applications, including ingredients for skin care and cosmetic formulations and superabsorbent polymers (SAPs) for absorbent hygiene products like infant diapers. “We also can expand into food, agriculture, and other industrial applications that need a functional, bio-based alternative for conventional acrylate and acrylamide polymers, derived from non-renewable sources,” notes Hertig.

“Our novel route for PGA production, leveraging innovations in fermentation, purification, and downstream derivatization technologies, can reduce production costs by up to 96% and enable new applications and markets for PGA that were not previously economical. Our platform complements AkzoNobel’s downstream, distribution and commercialization capabilities with our fermentation expertise and core process technology,” adds Hertig.

Ecovia has demonstrated proof-of-concept for its process and products at bench scale, and likely will deliver a pilot-scale (approximately 100-L to 1,000-L fermentation capacity) demonstration plant in 2018. “We will continue to work on strain and fermentation improvement, and optimizing downstream processing and PGA end-products before a full pilot-scale demonstration,” says Minty. “After demonstrating the process and end products at pilot-scale, we expect to further scale-up to commercial production (for initial markets and applications) in 2019 and 2020, with increased capacity to be added later as we launch additional products,” he adds.

Ecovia still faces some challenges developing and scaling up its co-culture process, as well as selling PGA products in new markets. “As with any new bio-process, we will need to demonstrate performance at scale to complete technical de-risking of the process. We don’t see many issues with obtaining eco-certifications and are confident we will pass all regulatory hurtles in the U.S. and European Union,” notes Minty.

Industrial Microbes. Emeryville, Calif.-based Industrial Microbes, a synthetic biology startup represented at the finals by Noah Helman, has developed a way to convert inexpensive hydrocarbon gases to valuable chemical products using fermentation of engineered microorganisms.

“Our winning solution described a method for using an enzyme system inside living cells to catalyze the reaction that turns ethylene into ethylene oxide. This plan builds on our core technology and will allow us to eventually help AkzoNobel produce ethylene oxide at lower cost and with a smaller carbon footprint,” says Helman.

The process uses less power, operating at mild temperatures and pressures unlike conventional methods. In addition, the company is working to integrate several unit operations into a single “one-pot” reaction that may reduce costs and emissions even further.

“Our project is early in the development stage,” notes Helman. “The next step is to improve the rate of the enzyme catalyst using protein evolution. It will take a few years to achieve an enzyme rate that is commercially ready and demonstrate high productivity on a large scale,” he adds.

One challenge the company will focus on early in development will be to achieve sufficiently high mass transfer of the substrate into the aqueous phase so that the enzyme can catalyze the epoxidation. “In our case,” says Helman, “the product is also a gas at the relevant temperature, so separation will take advantage of this property. Catalyst lifetime could be a challenge.”

“Industrial biotechnology has not yet lived up to its full potential, in part because of high feedstock costs and challenging purification requirements. Industrial Microbes is focusing on enabling lower-cost feedstocks, such as methane and ethane, and we believe that a collaborative approach (between strain engineers and chemical engineers) will also help us solve problems in separations for a range of products,” he notes.

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