In synthetic biology, microbes are redesigned for practical uses by being given new skills. Before the first synthetic, genetically modified “human” insulin was manufactured in 1978 using E. coli bacteria, we used to extract insulin from the pancreas of pigs. Since then, synthetic biology has fundamentally changed how to produce specialty chemicals for use in pharmaceutics, fragrance, cosmetics, and, more recently, food, including the newest trend in artificial meat. Synthetic biology is a bioprocess inspired by nature that is positioned as a potent weapon in the fight against climate change.
Cemvita Factory is on a mission to combat climate change using cost-effective, low-carbon solutions that have a net positive impact on the environment. The Houston-based biotech firm is a synthetic biology platform company whose central goal is to decarbonize the heavy industry, reducing the environmental impact of numerous industries from mining to oil and gas. Cemvita achieves this by using technology to enable carbon-neutral chemical synthesis, bioextraction of metals, waste as a feedstock for energy and chemical products, and hydrogen production. Cemvita is made up of scientists, engineers, and businesspeople committed to environmental science, energy, and mining technology.
Over the past few months, Cemvita has announced major partnerships with sustainable fuel and bio-solutions companies to extract critical minerals. In March 2022, Cemvita teamed up with United Airlines Ventures (UAV) and Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (OLCV) to commercialize the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) intended to be developed through a revolutionary new process using carbon dioxide (CO2) and synthetic microbes. A month later, Cemvita announced a collaboration with Fluor Corporation to accelerate the design development, optimization, and scale-up of new sustainable processes to unlock metal extraction from low-grade or recalcitrant ore bodies and even waste.
GEN Edge interviewed Moji Karimi, CEO and co-founder, about the origins of Cemvita’s mission, vision, and company name as well as its approach to partnerships and business acquisition.
GEN Edge: How was Cemvita founded?
Karimi: I come from the energy industry but became interested in multidisciplinary sciences. I saw an opportunity to join a startup company that wanted to commercialize DNA sequencing in the oil and gas industry. I thought that was fascinating and ended up joining them. We were building a 23andMe-like map for the subsurface, looking at the DNA of microbes in the oil, rock, and water, and our main investor was Illumina.
While this happened, I started talking more with my sister Tara Karimi, my co-founder at Cemvita. She came from a biotech background and worked at the Texas Medical Center doing tissue engineering and stem-cell programming. We never imagined an angle where we could work with each other because our backgrounds were so far apart — but DNA sequencing brought us together! Through what she taught me, I learned that DNA sequencing is a tool, but the toolbox is synthetic biology within the industry of biotech. We’re trying to zoom in on reducing the cost and add efficiency for the challenges faced by energy transition, leveraging the inherent sustainability built in biology, and helping companies reduce their carbon and environmental footprint.
GEN Edge: What is Cemvita’s business model?
Karimi: We’re a platform company. The solutions that we’re developing are across three different themes. The first is for sustainable extraction of natural resources, whether hydrocarbons or metals. In the future, I think many companies will pay close attention to lowering the environmental and carbon footprint of the mineral extraction process needed for renewable energy.
Second, we’re pursuing the sustainable production of chemicals and fuels through biomanufacturing to bring the Scope 1 emissions [direct greenhouse emissions that occur from sources, such as fuel combustion from boilers, cars, and furnaces that are controlled or owned by an organization] down and make these processes low-carbon. Third, we want to sustainably use any waste created within the extraction and production process back into other sources of value, closing the carbon loop.
These three themes feed our platform with three distinct business units. The first is low-carbon biomanufacturing. That’s where we have all the carbon dioxide (CO2)-based chemicals. We’re very excited about three pathways there: CO2 to bioethylene for decarbonization of plastics, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), in partnership with United, and renewable natural gas.
The second vertical is biomining. Using microbes for sustainable and more efficient extraction of energy transition metals, especially copper and lithium. The third is what we call subsurface biomanufacturing. The flagship project we have there is gold hydrogen — a new way of biologically producing hydrogen that uses microbes in the subsurface to generate hydrogen.
The business model depends on the pathway. For some, it’s through partnerships, like SAF with United Airlines and Oxy. In other cases, we will license the technology or go deeper and become owner-operators, depending on the structure.
GEN Edge: Does Cemvita approach companies about partnerships?
Karimi: In some cases, they’ll come to us. As you can imagine, companies have climate pledges. The CEOs look at all the VPs to go out and look for solutions. And especially things that touch the Scope 1 emissions because there is no shortcut. You have to change how you do things. It’s not offsetting or buying a different kind of electricity. So, some partners come to us looking for new solutions to create a greener alternative for what they’re already making or to lower their footprint.
In other cases, we’ve learned that we could approach the market. For example, we could go to a lithium battery company and say, would you like 1,000 tons of sustainably mined lithium? Why would they say no?! Then we take that letter of intent (LOI) and go to one of our partner mining companies and say that we have this brand and ask if they would be interested in deploying this technology with us. This kind of three-way partnership is one way that our company has established a way to, as a small startup technology company, go further and bring the technologies to the market faster.
In our investor base, there are a lot of corporate venture capital (CVC) groups, such as Oxy, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo and others. We do that because it gives us a pathway to discuss the commercialization within their company because now, they have skin in the game. I think CVCs are a great way to accelerate technology deployment, and it’s the perfect setup for collaboration between big corporations and startups.
GEN Edge: In June 2020, Cemvita acquired Solfatara Laboratories to advance and rapidly scale the biomining business. Is this a one-off, or will Cemvita be eying other acquisition opportunities?
Karimi: We’re pleased about that acquisition. It was a perfect scenario that shifted about two years of our timeline, like doing the scale-up because the company had already done that. It was an ideal situation, and if we come across opportunities like that, we’ll leverage them, especially from here on as our company grows and will have even more resources. But this is not inherently who we are. We rely heavily on our internal processes. Still, if there is an opportunity that could accelerate our growth and bring those who are passionate about the space and could be a force multiplier, then that’s something we’ll be pursuing.
GEN Edge: What is Cemvita’s strategy for developing sustainable processes?
Karimi: The earlier, the more involved we are. For example, we’ll do the discovery phase lab work and then, as we start to take risk off the table, we bring other partners into the mix, especially once you get to scale up. We have EPC (engineering procurement companies) partners that built these plants or deployed solutions in the field. But before they could engage, we should have done enough de-risking for them to see what this means. As you could imagine, synthetic biology is not the core of what they know in many industries we’re in — mining, oil, or gas chemicals. There aren’t genetic engineers working at a mining company.
So, we have to bridge that gap and boil down synthetic biology into chemistry, then build it back up to chemical engineering and process engineering. And once you have that process package, that’s now the common language with the engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) company to engage. So that’s pretty common. At the end of the day, we aren’t a university or research institute. We’re only interested in projects that could scale and become commercial. That means some projects die along the way. That’s the point. It’s acceptable because we throw big nets, but then that’s why we do that early discovery and de-risking — to see which ones would make it to the next phase.
GEN Edge: What kind of scientists work at Cemvita?
Karimi: The coolest thing about my job is the diversity of disciplines we have in the company. This is how we’ve come up with many of our solutions and IP. Something magical happens when you have a biochemist in a meeting next to a geomicrobiologist, process engineer, and petroleum engineer. That multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving is part of who we are. This is something that we curate. It’s not random, from people joining us from a medical center or studying synthetic biology to the mining and petrochemical industries. That’s what makes up who we are: that multidisciplinary approach to these applications.
GEN Edge: What is the meaning behind the company name, Cemvita?
Karimi: When we started thinking about starting the company, Tara — the brain behind what we do — was writing a book for Springer titled “Molecular Mechanisms of Autonomy in Biological Systems: Relativity of Code, Energy, and Mass.” She was trying to explain how it is that living things could self-regulate, self-fuel, and eventually become autonomous, whether humans or microbes. One of the principles she explains is the relativity of code, energy and mass in living systems. By contrast, in nonliving things, you only have relativity of energy and mass.
In living things, there is that third element; if you put a seed of an apple in the right environment, it activates and starts growing because of the information — DNA — stored within that seed. But DNA is not just information. It also has mass, therefore it also has energy. In living things, code, energy, and mass (CEM) always transform into each other. Then Vita means life in Latin. We convert different kinds of energy and mass to other types of energy and mass, and it’s governed by the code, which is the genetic engineering we do inside the microbe, with the microbes being the vehicle for the transformation.
GEN Edge: Where does Cemvita hope to be by 2050?
Karimi: If you think about what’s happening in synthetic biology, I think we’re still like monkeys banging on a computer. It is amazing what these microbes can do, and how limited our understanding of it is. CRISPR [gene editing] is not old. It was invented just a few years ago, and now it’s already changing many industries simultaneously. You have energy transition with this challenge and at the same time, really ambitious goals from companies, and as a whole, humanity must balance the rate of climate change rate by 2050, both of which are huge market areas. And we sit right in the middle in that Venn diagram.
By 2050, we want to be one of those category-defining companies that brought and realized the potential of biology and industrial biotech in synthetic biology for the energy transition. Backtrack from that, building out the platform, proving these early applications within the next few years, expanding from there, and building more of those. And as synthetic biology becomes more available. It only gets better because the cost of doing what we do becomes lower. That’s the plan!
We’re just at the beginning of appreciating some of these solutions, but then, it will be obvious to everybody at some point. If you think about the history of computer science from what it was in the 1980s to the 2000s to today, of course, this is how you do it. This is how synthetic biology could impact the world after the industrial and digital revolutions. It’s not just me believing in this. Many people believe this is the time to unleash the power of biology. And even though you may not notice it daily, it’s become a more significant part of our life.
You can now buy plant-based meat made with synthetic biology from any grocery store, and almost all pharmaceuticals are made that way. So, it’s not that a company like us is inventing a new field of science. It already exists! We’re just expanding its applications in areas that we think are even more valuable, and that’s energy transition. Once you change the discussion from climate change to What do they need to get to by 2050? What needs to happen? We need a lot of help, and it’s not just scientists or engineers, it’s people in marketing, in sales or in contracts—the same multidisciplinary diversity we’ve talked about is also within our company already. We’d love to stay in touch with anyone interested in this area as our company grows and explores different ways we can work together.