fresh funding

Houston-led research team granted $4.1M for carbon synthesis project, calls for collaboration

A Rice University team researching carbon nanotube synthesis has received $4.1 million funding from both Rice’s Carbon Hub and The Kavli Foundation. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

A Rice University-led team of scientists has been awarded a $4.1 million grant to optimize a synthesis process that could make carbon materials sustainable and affordable on a large scale.

Known as carbon nanotube (CNT) synthesis, the process has the ability to create hollow cylindrical nanoscale structures made from carbon atoms that are strong, lightweight and carry heat and electricity well. CNT synthesis evolved across multiple countries around the same time, according to Rice. But to scale up the process in a way that could create alternatives to materials dependent on heavy industry, Matteo Pasquali, the team's leader and the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, says collaboration will be required.

“We have to apply a collaborative mindset to solve this problem,” Pasquali says in a statement. “We believe that by bringing together a dedicated interdisciplinary community, this project will lead to improvements in reactor efficiency and help identify further gaps in instrumentation and modeling.”

The grant seeks to achieve that. The funds come from both Rice’s Carbon Hub, which contributed $2.2 million to the team, and The Kavli Foundation, which granted $1.9 million in the form of a Kavli Exploration Award in Nanoscience for Sustainability.

The Kavli Foundation supports research in astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics. Winners of its Kavli Prize, which recognizes scientific breakthroughs, often go on to win the Nobel Prize.

“We are proud to partner with Rice University to support this important high-risk, high-reward research,” says Amy Bernard, director of life sciences at The Kavli Foundation, says in a statement.

Pasquali is the director and one of the creators of Rice's Carbon Hub, a collaborative group of corporations, researchers, universities and nonprofits focused on decarbonizing the economy. He says the grant will help the team develop tools to shed light on CNT formation and reaction zones.

“We are at a critical juncture in carbon research, and it is really important that we shed light on the physical and chemical processes that drive CNT synthesis,” Pasquali says. “Currently, reactors are black boxes, which prevents us from ramping up synthesis efficiency. We need to better understand the forces at play in CNT formation by developing new tools to shed light on the reaction zone and find ways to leverage it to our advantage.”

Boris Yakobson, the Karl F. Hasselmann Professor of Engineering and professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice, and Thomas Senftle, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice, are also involved in the project. Other collaborators hail from the UK, Italy, Korea, and Spain, as well as U.S. labs and universities, including Harvard, Stanford, MIT and others.

In October, a separate team of Rice researchers released a study on a new synthesis process with applications in developing commercially relevant solar cells.

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A View From HETI

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want. Photo courtesy of Boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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