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“If you follow the [sugar] molecule,” Solugen cofounder Gaurab Chakrabarti says, “everything becomes quite simple.” The way he sums up his company’s process of turning corn syrup into industrial chemicals using enzymes and metal catalysis belies the complex science at work in the company’s Houston bioforge. Located on the site of a former chemical plant that exploded, Solugen’s production operation creates none of the emissions of petrochemical processes. Additionally, whereas both petrochem and fermentation end up sacrificing final product yield to byproducts, Solugen’s process boasts yields of up to 90%. The efficacy of this process is likely part of what led the company to raise more than $350 million last fall, fueling a valuation of $1.8 billion.
Here’s how the company’s process works:
1. Feeding frenzy
At the center of the bioforge is a 60-foot “bubble column” that houses the enzymes. Corn syrup, mixed with water, enters at the top and starts to react with the enzymes. This process feeds on compressed air pumped in from the bottom in the form of Solugen’s proprietary, super-small bubbles.
2. A change of state
By the time it hits the bottom of the column, the corn syrup has become an intermediate material, which will eventually become the final chemical. As the enzyme reaction happens, the material is continuously harvested by passing through membranes that filter out the enzymes.
3. One more reaction
The intermediate material is pressurized and pumped over metal catalysts, turning into chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide. Cofounder Sean Hunt says that this is where Solugen’s expertise comes in, knowing how to get “an enzyme reactor to work in tandem with a metal reactor.”
4. The final product
Solugen launched with 4 chemicals (organic acids and aldehydes), with 17 in development. They’re being used in water treatment, concrete production to reduce cement use, and in agriculture to deliver nutrients to crops. Hunt says the company’s revenue has a nine-figure annual run rate.