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Fast funding for translational science.
It started over a game of poker.
Sean Hunt, a PhD candidate in chemical engineering, was puzzling over how to make metal catalysts cheaper for chemical manufacturing. Gaurab Chakrabarti, an MD/PhD in training, was working on an enzyme in cancer cells that naturally produced high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide. They happened to sit across from each other at the poker table one night — and the possibility dawned on them.
Could they combine their efforts to harness these biological processes, already happening in hyperdrive in cancer cells, for large-scale chemical production?
Seven years later, Solugen, the project hatched in that friendly game of cards, is a $2 billion startup. The company has pioneered a groundbreaking approach that leverages biology to produce carbon-negative chemicals and has charted a path toward decarbonizing the global chemicals industry.
Solugen is the exception, not the rule. It’s the type of ambitious scientific idea that rarely gets off the ground due to a funding gap for translational science.
Sean and Gaurab have set their sights on a very big target. The chemical industry fuels the global economy but it primarily relies on oil and natural gas as its feedstocks, making it one of the hardest industries to clean up. Chemicals production generates at least 925 million metric tonnes of CO2 emissions annually, or more than 2% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions.
The scientists needed a proof of concept to show their idea had commercial potential. But they faced a problem that has defeated thousands of researchers just like them. Grant financing would take too long to access (up to 20 months!). Venture capitalists are not interested in funding such risky science experiments.
Sean and Gaurab didn’t need much: just enough money to test whether the basic science was translatable to the real world. Bereft of options, they entered the MIT Entrepreneurship Competition (open only to MIT students) and landed second place, winning $10,000. They used that cash to build their first reactor with materials bought in a Home Depot: wood, PVC pipes, and zip ties. It worked, and became the first iteration of Bioforge: an enzyme-powered chemical plant that could produce high-value chemicals without fossil fuels.
Today, Solugen operates a 20,000 sq. ft Bioforge in Houston, Texas, is offsetting over 30,000 tons of CO2 a year, and is on track to decarbonize over 90% of the chemicals humanity needs.
That first $10,000 check was vital for Solugen. But scattered university contests are not a solution. Right now, thousands of researchers are working on innovative solutions to the climate crisis, disease, and other big problems. Only a few will get the opportunity to test whether their idea can be turned into a product or process that, just maybe, could change the world.
We built Manifest Grants to bridge that gap. Manifest Grants is a fast grants program awarding $25,000 to $100,000 to scientists to accelerate their most ambitious ideas. The application takes 30 minutes to complete and applicants get a decision within 21 days. No IP is taken.
On August 1st, alongside EQT Foundation and Automattic, we launched Manifest Climate Round 1 to accelerate bio x climate research. Any academic scientist (PI, PhD, Postdoc) working on a bio x climate solution can apply at fiftyyears.com/manifest. The applications close on August 31st at 11:59 pm (PT).
Our goal is simple: to give the most innovative ideas a fighting chance to move from the lab bench to the real world. By offering funding for that critical next step, from prototyping and techno-economic modeling to real-world testing, a new generation of innovators can determine whether their ideas translate to the market.
How many Solugens is the world missing out on because there are few avenues for scientists to quickly test their ideas? We want to back all potential Seans and Gaurabs out there and accelerate the next generation of scientists solving the world’s biggest problems. If that sounds like you, apply! The world needs you.