Kebotix, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based start-up with a novel idea for an autonomous materials discovery lab, came together in September 2017 at a conference on technology innovation to combat climate change.
Harvard University chemistry and chemical biology professor Alán Aspuru-Guzik and three partners from his lab were planning to attend the event, which was held in Mexico City and sponsored by Mission Innovation, an initiative backed by 24 countries and the European Union. They wanted to pitch the idea of melding artificial intelligence and robotics as a means of accelerating the discovery of materials.
At the last minute, the group invited Jill S. Becker, whom they had recently approached as a potential CEO for the company they envisioned, to join them. Already moving fast, things sped up, Becker says: Aspuru-Guzik introduced her at the conference as CEO of the company, Kebotix. By November it was official.
Shreya Dave didn’t set out to disrupt the chemical separations industry. As a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dave was trying to create a better membrane for water purification, which would increase access to clean water while reducing the costs and energy associated with it. Her membrane was good enough to separate sodium chloride from seawater.
But Dave also spent a portion of her PhD research analyzing the economics of the new technology, and what she found was disheartening: the new technology wasn’t going to affect consumers’ water costs at all. She defended her PhD with the expectation that her work was “never going to be commercialized,” she says.
Instead, a week later, she stumbled on an article about industrial chemical separations and had a realization. Nearly half of all US industrial energy is used for thermal separation and purification—for things like pharmaceuticals and food and beverages—amounting to about 12% of total US energy use. Converting these energy-intensive separations to filtration could cut 90% of that energy, saving a collective $20 billion annually and reducing greenhouse gas emissions along the way, according to Dave’s analyses. Dave realized that the membrane she developed could fill this niche.
Membranes on the market today are generally based on ceramics or polymers. Ceramic membranes cannot achieve small enough pore sizes for many chemical separations, and polymer membranes cannot withstand the harsh solvents used in many industrial settings. Dave’s solution was to come at the problem with a new material.