Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt were originally named regional winners in this year's competition this summer along with nine other Houston entrepreneurs. Photos via solugen.com

Houston’s Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, the founders of the transformative chemical manufacturing company Solugen, have been named EY’s US National Award winners for Entrepreneur of the Year.

Solugen, also recently named a finalist in the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards, is an environmentally friendly approach that relies on smaller chemical refineries that helps in reducing costs and transportation-related emissions.

Some of their noted accomplishments includes innovations like the proprietary reactor, dubbed the Bioforge, which is a carbon-negative molecule factory and manufacturing process produces zero wastewater or emissions compared with traditional petrochemical refineries.The Bioforge uses a chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels.

Chakrabarti and Hunt were originally named regional winners in this year's competition this summer along with nine other Houston entrepreneurs.

Founded in 2016 by Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors like Sasol that believe in the technology's potential. The company is valued at reportedly over $2 billion. Solugen is headquartered in Houston, not because it is the hometown of Chakrabarti, but for what Houston brings to the company.

“There’s no way our business could succeed in the Bay Area," Chakrabarti said in a 2023 interview at SXSW where he detailed the offers Hunt and he received to move the business out of state. “For our business, if you look at the density of chemical engineers, the density of our potential customers, and the density of people who know how to do enzyme engineering, Houston happened to be that perfect trifecta for us.”

Even though they are headquartered in Houston, Solugen recently secured plans to expand to the Midwest, as in November they announced its newest strategic partnership with sustainable solutions company ADM (NYSE:ADM) in Marshall, Minnesota. The partnership includes plans for Solugen to build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility next to an existing ADM facility , with the two companies working together on producing biomaterials to replace fossil fuel products.

“The strategic partnership with ADM will allow Solugen to bring our chemienzymatic process to a commercial scale and meet existing customer demand for our high-performance, cost-competitive, sustainable products,” Chakrabarti said in a news release. “As one of the few scaled-up and de-risked biomanufacturing assets in the country, Solugen’s Bioforge platform is helping bolster domestic capabilities and supply chains that are critical in ensuring the U.S. reaches its ambitious climate targets.”

For Chakrabarti and Hunt, Solugen was born out of a 12-year friendship, and the journey began after a friendly card game. After an entrepreneurship contest at MIT, which earned them second place and a $10,000 prize, they invested the winnings to work on what would become Solugen, a proof-of-concept reactor with materials bought from a local home improvement store.

"We had a conviction that we were building something that could be impactful to the rest of the world,” Chakrabarti said at SXSW in 2023.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

Houston-based Solugen will build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility in the Midwest thanks to a new strategic partnership.

Houston-based sustainable chemicals co. to build ​Midwest biomanufacturing facility

it's corn

Solugen has scored a partnership with a global company to build a biomanufacturing facility adjacent to an existing corn complex in Marshall, Minnesota.

Solugen, a Houston company that's designed a process that converts plant-derived substances into essential materials, has announced its newest strategic partnership with sustainable solutions company ADM (NYSE:ADM). The partnership includes plans for Solugen to build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility next to an existing ADM facility in the Midwest. The two companies will collaborate on producing biomaterials to replace fossil fuel-based products.

“The strategic partnership with ADM will allow Solugen to bring our chemienzymatic process to a commercial scale and meet existing customer demand for our high-performance, cost-competitive, sustainable products,” Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, says in a news release. “As one of the few scaled-up and de-risked biomanufacturing assets in the country, Solugen’s Bioforge platform is helping bolster domestic capabilities and supply chains that are critical in ensuring the U.S. reaches its ambitious climate targets.”

The company plans to begin on-site construction early next year, with plans to startup in the first half of 2025. The project should create at least 40 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction positions.

“Sustainability is one of the enduring global trends powering ADM’s growth and underpinning the strategic evolution of our Carbohydrate Solutions business,” Chris Cuddy, president of ADM’s Carbohydrate Solutions business, says in the release. “ADM is one of the largest dextrose producers in the world, and this strategic partnership will allow us to further diversify our product stream as we continue to support plant-based solutions spanning sustainable packaging, pharma, plant health, construction, fermentation, and home and personal care.”

Founded in 2016 by Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, Solugen's carbon-negative molecule factory, named the Bioforge, uses its chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels. The manufacturing process is carbon neutral, and Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors that believe in the technology's potential.

“The initial phase of the project will significantly increase Solugen’s manufacturing capacity, which is critical for commercializing our existing line of molecules and kicks off plans for a multi-phase large-scale U.S. Bioforge buildout,” Hunt, CTO of Solugen, says in the release. “The increase in capacity will also free up our Houston operation for research and development efforts into additional molecules and market applications.”

The project should create at least 40 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction positions.

"As a community with a strong foundation of agriculture and innovation, we look forward to welcoming Solugen to Marshall. This industry-leading facility will serve as a powerful economic driver for the city, creating new jobs and diversifying our industry,” City of Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes says in the statement. "We are thankful for ADM’s longstanding commitment and impact to Marshall, which has paved the way for this remarkable partnership and continues to further economic growth to our region."

It's the second major company partnership announcement Solugen has made this month, with a new arrangement with Sasol being secured last week.

Solugen and Sasol have entered into a strategic partnership. Photo via Solugen

Houston-based sustainable chemicals company secures major partnership with Sasol

cleaner chemicals

A Houston company that's creating cleaner chemicals with little to no impact on the environment has scored a partnership with a major chemicals producer.

Solugen and Sasol Chemicals, a business unit of Saslo Ltd., revealed that they are working together to explore commercialization of sustainably-made home and personal care products.

“This agreement is an example of our approach of partnering to find innovative solutions for our customers,” Jonathan Ward, senior manager of Strategy and Sustainable Growth for Sasol’s Essential Care Chemicals business division, says in a news release. “Our focus is delivering high-performing products with lower carbon footprints at competitive prices, and we are eager to see how Solugen’s products might help us do that.”

Founded in 2016 by Sean Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, Solugen's carbon-negative molecule factory, named the Bioforge, uses a chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels. The manufacturing process is carbon neutral, and Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors that believe in the technology's potential.

"We are thrilled to partner with Sasol Chemicals, one of the world’s largest producers of surfactants, to drive positive impact in the home and personal care market,” Chakrabarti, CEO of Solugen, says in the release. “Sasol’s commitment to sustainability makes it an ideal partner for Solugen. We look forward to leveraging our combined strengths in technology, production, and market development to meet increasing consumer demand for our high-performance, bio-based solutions.”

Chakrabarti shared some of the secrets to Solugen's success and early partnerships at a SXSW panel earlier this year. The company was also recently named a finalist in the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards.

These Houston-area executives were recognized by EY's annual regional awards. Photos courtesy

Houston energy leaders score wins at annual regional entrepreneur competition

eyes on EY

You might say that four Houston executives with ties to the energy sector are energized about an award they just received.

The four executives recently were named winners in the Gulf South division of the Entrepreneur Of The Year awards program. They’ll now compete at the national level.

The one winner who works directly in the energy industry is Roger Jenkins, president and CEO of Houston-based Murphy Oil. Jenkins rose to the company’s top positions in 2013. He joined Murphy Oil in 2001 as a drilling manager in Malaysia.

Jenkins earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from Louisiana State University and an MBA from Harvard University’s business school.

Murphy Oil is an oil and natural gas exploration and production company that operates primarily onshore in the U.S. and Canada, and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

A Fortune 1000 company founded in 1944, Murphy Oil generated revenue of nearly $4 billion in 2022.

In 2020, the company announced it was shuttering its headquarters in El Dorado, Arkansas, as well as its location in Calgary, Canada, and consolidating its operations into a new main office in Houston. About 190 Murphy Oil employees worked in El Dorado and Calgary.

“Our ongoing execution excellence across our significant offshore backlog and over 1,000 oil-weighted onshore locations will ensure that we will remain a long-term sustainable company,” Jenkins told Wall Street analysts in May 2023.

While not exactly an energy company, Solugen's co-founders — Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO, and Sean Hunt, CTO — are representing the clean chemicals space within the energy transition.

Solugen, founded in 2016, makes and distributes specialty chemicals derived from feedstock. The startup is reportedly valued at more than $2 billion. To date, Solugen has raised $642.2 million, according to Crunchbase.

In naming Solugen one of the most innovative companies of 2022, Fast Company noted that the carbon-negative process embraced by Solugen and the startup’s “ability to sell flexible amounts of chemicals to companies looking to lower their own footprint have helped the company make inroads in a traditionally slow-moving industry.”

Another Houston executive with connections to the energy sector also is regional Entrepreneur Of The Year winners.

Ludmila Golovine is president and CEO of Houston-based MasterWord Services. The company provides translation and interpretation services in more than 400 languages for clients in sectors like energy, health care, and tech. The woman-owned business launched in 1993.

“It is a great honor for me and for MasterWord to be recognized alongside the other EY Entrepreneur Of The Year winners,” Golovine says in a news release about the Entrepreneur Of The Year honor.

In all, 10 executives from Houston-based companies were hailed as 2023 regional winners in the Entrepreneur Of The Year program, run by professional services firm EY. Aside from Jenkins, Golovine, Walker, and Smith, they are:

  • Steve Altemus, president and CEO of space exploration company Intuitive Machines.
  • Mark Walker, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Houston-based Direct Digital Holdings, and Keith Smith, co-founder and president. Direct Digital Holdings operates advertising platforms for clients in sectors such as energy, health care, travel and financial services.
  • Daryl Dudum and Matthew Hadda, founders and co-CEOs of Specialty1 Partners. The company provides business services to dental surgery practices.
  • Mohammad Millwala, founder and CEO of DM Clinical Research. The company operates 13 sites for clinical trials.

Also grabbing a regional award is Omair Tariq, co-founder and CEO of Austin-based Cart.com. The company, which provides software and services to online merchants, relocated its headquarters from Houston to Austin in 2021. Tariq remains in Houston, though.

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Tesla shareholders ask investors to vote against Musk's compensation package

just say no

A group of Texas-based Tesla's shareholders is asking investors to vote against a compensation package worth more than $40 billion for CEO Elon Musk, saying that it's not in the electric vehicle maker's best interest.

Tesla is struggling with falling global sales, slowing electric vehicle demand, an aging model lineup and a stock price that has tumbled 30 percent this year.

The shareholder group, which includes New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, SOC Investment Group and Amalgamated Bank, said in a letter to shareholders that ratification of Musk's pay package would do nothing to promote Tesla's long-term growth and stability.

There's also concern that approval of the pay package will potentially lead to lawsuits arguing that it is corporate waste. And Musk is viewed as a part-time CEO at Tesla, with his time increasingly being spent on other business commitments, the letter said.

“Shareholders should not pretend that this award has any kind of incentivizing effect—it does not. What it does have is an excessiveness problem, which has been glaringly apparent from the start,” the group said.

They noted that if shareholders ratify the compensation package, it's possible that another plan will be put forth next year.

“Given Tesla’s history of exponentially larger awards, Musk may well ask for another award,” the group said.

The group is also asking investors to vote against the reelection of board members Kimbal Musk, Elon's brother, and James Murdoch, a former executive at media company Twenty-First Century Fox.

Last month Tesla asked shareholders to restore Musk's pay package, which was valued at $56 billion at the time, that was rejected by a Delaware judge this year. At the time, it also asked to shift the company’s corporate home to Texas.

The changes will be voted on by stockholders at a June 13 annual meeting.

In a letter to shareholders released in a regulatory filing last month, Chairperson Robyn Denholm said that Musk has delivered on the growth it was looking for at the automaker, with Tesla meeting all of the stock value and operational targets in the 2018 package that was approved by shareholders. Shares at the time were up 571 percent since the pay package began.

“Because the Delaware Court second-guessed your decision, Elon has not been paid for any of his work for Tesla for the past six years that has helped to generate significant growth and stockholder value,” Denholm wrote. “That strikes us — and the many stockholders from whom we already have heard — as fundamentally unfair, and inconsistent with the will of the stockholders who voted for it.”

Tesla posted record deliveries of more than 1.8 million electric vehicles worldwide in 2023, but the value of its shares has eroded quickly this year as EV sales soften.

The company said it delivered 386,810 vehicles from January through March, nearly 9 percent fewer than it sold in the same period last year. Future growth is in doubt and it may be a challenge to get shareholders to back a fat pay package in an environment where competition has increased worldwide.

Starting last year, Tesla has cut prices as much as $20,000 on some models. The price cuts caused used electric vehicle values to drop and clipped Tesla’s profit margins.

In April, Tesla said that it was letting about 10 percent of its workers go, about 14,000 people.

Greentown Labs to launch another executive search, CEO to step down after less than a year in the position

on the hunt

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

Houston expert: How to make the EV switch while factoring in impact, cost

Guest Column

Americans are in the midst of getting to know electric cars up close and personal. The finer points of charging and battery technology are now becoming mainstream news.

However, there’s a secret about electric vehicles (EVs) that very few people know, because very few people have driven an electric car with 50,000 or 100,000 miles on it. Very often, EVs drive like new even if they’ve clocked up the miles. No rattles and no shakes, and importantly there is no loss of efficiency, unlike gas cars which tend to lose fuel efficiency as they age. Most strikingly, battery degradation and loss of range is often minimal — even after the odometer hits 6 digits.

What does this mean? At a time when car payments, repair costs and gas prices are all weighing on consumer wallets, we are about to enter an era when it will get easier than ever before for Americans to find a great driving, longer lasting car that saves on fuel costs and needs less maintenance.

This represents an amazing source of value for American drivers to be tapped into - plus even more positive changes for the auto sector, and the potential for new business models.

Narratives about EVs have focused on fears about battery degradation and today’s models becoming dated as technology rapidly advances. The fact that we are all habituated to replacing smartphone batteries that fade within 2 to 3 years doesn’t help.

Auto manufacturers have put 100,000 mile warranties on batteries, but this may have created the perception that this is a ceiling, rather than a floor, for what can be expected from an EV battery.

EV batteries are performing much better than your last smartphone battery. We know this with growing certainty because it’s backed up by evidence. Data reveals that older Teslas average only 12 percent loss of original range at 200,000 miles — double the warranty period.

Furthermore, battery advances are happening at an encouraging pace. You can expect that newer batteries will start with higher ranges and degrade even more slowly. And even after they do, the value shorter range will increase as charging infrastructure matures.

In other words, a 2024 Volkswagen ID.4 with 291 miles of range may be down to 260 miles by the time it has put on 100,000 miles. But in the 5 to 7 years that typically takes, the buildout of charging stations means that range will have much more utility than today.

So in sum, electric vehicles can be expected to last longer with lower maintenance. Over-the-air software upgrades, and perhaps even computing hardware upgrades, will keep them feeling modern. Charging infrastructure will improve much faster than range will degrade. And crucially for the value of these cars, the drive quality will remain great much further into product lifetime.

The trend for driving older cars is already here – the average age of a car on US roads is 12 years old and rising. But now this will shift towards better quality, plus fuel savings, for more people.

New business models and services will help customers take advantage — especially those customers for whom lower cost EVs will represent a step up and savings on the cost of living.

At Houston-based Octopus Electric Vehicles, we are doing this today with something virtually unheard of: leasing pre-owned cars. With electric cars that are 1 to 4 years old, with clean histories and in excellent cosmetic and mechanical condition but depreciated relative to new EV prices, we are frequently able to offer discounts of 30 percent or more, even against heavily incentivized lease offers from automakers. And, because EV maintenance needs are lower, we can throw in free scheduled maintenance with our monthly payment, delivered by a mobile mechanic service.

The secret value of higher-mileage EVs won’t stay secret for long. There’s no replacing first hand experience, and you can probably get that the next time you order an Uber or Lyft by choosing their EV ride options. Before your ride is up, try to guess what’s on the odometer. You may be surprised to hear from your driver that the car you thought was brand new has 50,000 or 100,000 miles on it.

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Nathan Wyeth is the United States co-lead at Octopus Electric Vehicles.