From Ultracapacitors to Soybeans to Sludge: University Teams Pitch Local VCs

4/15/09Follow @wroush

Three local venture firms put on what amounted to a university startup fair at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square yesterday. I went hoping for a peek at a few of the companies that could be pulling down Series A rounds a year or two from now.

Now in its second year, the invitation-only University Research & Entrepreneurship Symposium was organized by Atlas Venture, Flybridge Capital Partners, and General Catalyst and sponsored by Boston-based law firm Goodwin Procter. The firms formatted the event so that university research teams with hot, potentially commercializable technologies had a chance to give their best 12-minute pitches to a large collection of venture capitalists and corporate representatives from all over the region. Attendees had one track to hear about nine companies in the life sciences industry, and other track for nine more infotech- and energy-oriented companies. The research teams weren’t just from places like Harvard and MIT, but represented 15 different institutions from around the country.

Eight of the presenting teams were from New England. One, Boston-based Novophage, is a company that Ryan already covered; it’s working on “engineered bacteriophages” to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA. I couldn’t be in two places at once, so I had to skip presentations by three of the remaining seven local teams. But the following is a quick rundown of the four local presentations I did hear. All of these groups are in the lab-bench or seed-funding stage, and are looking for venture capital to get to the next step in the commercialization process.

Making Ethanol from Soybean Hulls—Without Destroying the Protein

Jonathan Mielenz of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, talked about a project with Dartmouth engineers John Bardsley and Charles Wyman to study soybean hulls as a potential raw material in the fermentation of ethanol.

Soybeans are used to make soy oil and other food products, and their hulls, which have a high protein content, are usually used as feedstock for cattle. That would seem to make them a bad choice as a source of biomass-derived ethanol; indeed, a lot of the effort in ethanol production these days is going into technologies, like ideas being developed at local firms like Mascoma and Verenium, that use non-food, high-cellulose sources such as wood chips or switchgrass.

But Mielenz said his group has come up with a simple way to ferment the sugars in soybean hulls without destroying the protein. The high-temperature pretreatment to which most other high-cellulose biomass is subjected before fermentation would break down the proteins in soybean hulls, Mielenz said. Simply by skipping this step, Mielenz says, his startup—which doesn’t have a name yet—found it was able to extract the sugars in the hulls without disrupting the amino acid sequences in their proteins, thus preserving their value as feed.

Selling the remains of the fermentation as feed could help bring down the net cost of ethanol production and make biofuels more competitive with fossil-based fuels, Mielenz argued.

Cheaper, More Powerful Methanol Fuel Cells

Nathan Ashcraft, a PhD candidate in the laboratory of Paula Hammond in the Chemical Engineering department at MIT, gave a talk about DyPol, a startup looking to commercialize a new, more efficient type of membrane for methanol-based fuel cells.

A methanol fuel cell works by exposing methanol on the anode side of the cell to a membrane where a catalyst such as platinum splits off protons and electrons. The electrons exit the cell to form an electric current while the protons travel through the membrane, meeting oxygen from air on the cathode side of the membrane to produce water as a waste product. DuPont makes the leading membrane material for methanol fuel cells, a polymer called Nafion. But Nafion has a few weaknesses, Ashcraft said; it’s costly to make; it depends a toxic fluorination process; and it’s easily permeated by raw methanol, reducing its efficiency.

Ashcraft and colleagues in the Hammond Lab, collaborating with a number of other labs around MIT, have devised a way to build polymer membranes layer by layer, allowing them to blend polymers that couldn’t otherwise be used together. The layers are less permeable to methanol, and can be created in a non-toxic, water-based solution. Prototype fuel cells built using the new membranes have 53 percent greater energy output than … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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    Ethenol from soy waste instead of from perfectly good corn seems like a BETTER idea. But it’s too bad one of these firms doesn’t want to tackle making a more efficient solar cell. …that combined with better batteries would solve the world’s energy problem.