Green chemistry is an emerging specialty and one of its leaders is chemist Richard Gross, NYU-Poly Professor who holds the Herman F. Mark Chair and a prize-winning scientist who holds 19 patents and has over 300 publications to his name. He works in biocatalysis—the process where enzymes transform starting materials into organic chemicals. It’s as simple as how beer is brewed and as complex as synthesizing pharmaceuticals. Gross has used biocatalysis to create, in his NYU-Poly lab, many green chemical products with powerful commercial promise. That potential is being realized today with SyntheZyme, a biotech startup he founded in 2008.
One of SyntheZyme’s most promising products is a bioplastic where the monomer is produced by using SyntheZyme’s genetically modified strain of the yeast Candida tropicalis. The engineered yeast is capable of converting fatty acids of plant oils into large quantities of omega-hydroxyfatty acids. When polymerized, the new material is a suitable substitute for petroleum derived plastics such as polyethylene for uses such as disposable gloves, multilayer food packaging films, and films for ice, trash, garments, produce bags and more.
The company also has another promising product, a biopesticide produced by fermenting a yeast grown on plant oils and sugars. This biosurfactant could ultimately replace common chemical pesticides, which can leave behind toxic residues, dangerous in high enough concentrations. SyntheZyme is also developing modified forms of the biosurfactant for use in cleaning and as antimicrobial agents.
Early on, University leaders including former NYU-Poly Provost Erich E. Kunhardt saw the powerful business possibilities in environmentally-friendly chemicals. Bruce Niswander, director of NYU’s Office of Innovation, Technology Transfer and Entrepreneurs, was also instrumental in assuring SyntheZyme’s founders the technology was ready to commercialize.
At his NYU-Poly lab, Gross supervises about 20 students, and SyntheZyme’s staff, which includes two postdoctoral fellows and two Ph.D. students from NYU-Poly. SyntheZyme is now pursuing initial production, marketing, sales and distribution and strategic partnerships. It’s also seeking VC funding and joint-development agreements. Gross has won (or expects) grants totaling $650,000. Overall, Gross says, the experience has given him a profound lesson, not in chemistry, but the possibilities of moving from scientific research “to creating value in the marketplace.”