By Brightan Ying.
Perlumi CEO and founder Chris Eiben started his career in fermenting renewable biofuels. But the more he worked on biofuels, the more he realized the sugar feedstock price was a major impediment to the field. As he pondered how to optimize the sugar biosynthesis processes, the concept behind Perlumi was born.
As Chris puts it, “We have a land use problem as a society. Half of all habitable land is dedicated to agriculture, and in future we will need even more land to capture and store carbon.” He adds, “We can’t make more land, so we need to be more efficient with it. One way to do this is to make plants fundamentally better at photosynthesis. If you make photosynthesis better, you solve a lot of problems at the same time. You increase food security, you can pull CO2 out of the atmosphere for the long term, and you can spare land for biodiversity.”
Chris’s approach to solving this problem is at once simple yet creative: stop relying on the slow step in the photosynthesis pathway, the enzyme Rubisco. “I didn’t have a clever way to make Rubisco better,” he says, “but there are other enzymes that do very similar chemistry. If you start with one of these and build a pathway around it to make sugars, you can avoid Rubisco entirely.” Perlumi’s technology will go into plants, making them more efficient at photosynthesizing sugars. Their end product will be seeds for agriculture.
Having made the jump from academia to entrepreneurship, Chris has a few pieces of advice for anyone looking to do the same. First, he notes that the process for starting a company is entirely different from research: “The first step to starting a company is to go out and talk to your potential customers and stakeholders. It’s very easy as an academic to sit in a lab and do research to try and deduce the answer, but that doesn’t work in startups. A lot of the information you need isn’t in a Google search.”
Additionally, Chris stresses the importance of approaching even negative findings with optimism: “Celebrate not doing things! If you find a faster way to do something, don’t think about the time you wasted doing it the slow way; instead, celebrate not doing it the slow way anymore! It might not feel like progress to cull things, but it’s actually very useful.”
Now that Chris and the Perlumi team have moved into Bakar Labs, they’re excited to note that they’ve been able to accelerate their progress substantially. Chris states that having a space like Bakar Labs that’s designed for startups has been very helpful in reducing overhead and logistical problems, which allows him to focus on important things like his research and expanding his company.
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