Bringing Chemistry to Life

Sustainability as an entrepreneurial choice

Episode Summary

Becoming the CTO of your own startup company may not be the most obvious first job in chemistry but that’s the exact path that Dr. Kevin Barnett has taken. Tune in to learn about him, his entrepreneurial career path, and the work he and his team are doing find a new way of making 1-5-pentanediol form renewable materials instead of petrochemical sources. Their radical approach combines novel chemistry with the real-world and scalable implementation of a chemical engineering mindset. Another exciting personal story mixed with great, world-changing chemistry!

Episode Notes

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Sustainability is a trendy word that is often abused, especially when speaking about chemistry. Most commodity chemicals and their highly integrated value chains remain rooted in the oil feedstock. Until this changes, it will be difficult to move towards truly sustainable technologies. The use of renewable resources to produce valuable chemicals has promised a lot but delivered little so far. Dr. Kevin Barnett aims to change that, and his approach is radical and pragmatic at the same time. No real innovation is possible without commercial attractiveness. The obvious start is something that can be useful and commercially attractive right now. Something that can’t be easily obtained from the established value chain. That something is 1,5-pentanediol, a small but wondrous molecule.

After graduate school, Kevin took the entrepreneurial way and co-founded Pyran, a company focused on the production of useful commodity chemicals from renewable resources and already launched his first commercial product; 1,5-pentanediol of course! In this fascinating discussion, Paolo and Kevin discuss career choices, entrepreneurship as a credible option for chemistry graduates, the present and future of renewable resources, and the promise for a different chemistry of tomorrow.

Episode Transcription

Dr. Kevin Barnett  00:06

Something I like to tell graduate students is we're actually better positioned to be entrepreneurs than we give ourselves credit for. We're very hard working, and most importantly, very good at multitasking.


Paolo  00:20

After completing his PhD, Kevin Barnett blazed his own trail into the world. As the co- founder of Pyran, a startup dedicated to improving commercial access to chemicals derived from biomass, he's stretching self, as a scientist, and as an entrepreneur. In this season two episode of Bringing Chemistry to Life, we speak with another member of Chemical and Engineering News' 2020 Talented 12 about their work and trends in their field. I'm your host, Dr. Paolo Braiuca, from Thermo Fisher Scientific. We began by asking Dr. Barnett about how his path to becoming a scientist began.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  00:59

Like most people coming out of high school, perhaps, I didn't know exactly what what every engineering major entailed. I thought chemical engineering would be the best pick to pursue a career in environmental issues. But once I joined actually realized that the majority of chemical engineering, especially where I was down in Texas, is petroleum focused. So I still enjoyed the chemistry, I loved the courses, but I certainly I kind of had to come back out into environmental issues once I got back into graduate school.


Paolo  01:35

And yet, I believe this must have taught you something. Because if we think about the job you do now, it's really looking into alternatives. Right to the typical oil-based chemical feedstock.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  01:46

Yeah, that's right. And you know, the vast majority of my friends, they got some nice jobs down in Houston for some big petrochemical companies. And I was kind of the weirdo that went up to Wisconsin to do my graduate studies in environmental issues. And but I've always been, in addition to just environmental issues, I've always been inspired on forward looking new technologies. And I think that's actually what caused me to go to graduate school, but being able to do it and be in a group that was so focused on environmental issues was certainly a win.


Paolo  02:18

What kind of role you know, the people you studied with your professors, during your initial science studies, but even later, during graduate school played in your perception of what's your role in the chemical community might might become? You know, it's not, it's not an easy choice that the one to you know, get get out of the PhD and jumping into, you know, an entrepreneurship position. So, you know, you must have had some role models, or some someone supporting you on the way.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  02:48

Yes, of course, and you know, the key one was my PhD advisor, Professor George Huber at the University of Wisconsin. He's fairly well known in this space of conversion of renewable biomass feedstock, so useful fuels and chemicals. So that was one core reason I wanted to study for him. So of course, he's an instrumental part of my graduate studies and Pyran today, still. But as I moved forward, I started and started starting Pyran and I met more and more people that had business experience and real-world chemical industry experience. For example, the former Chief Technology Officer of Dow Chemical, Bill Banholzer, is on Pyran's board and involved very early in Pyran. And there's a few others I can name but I think that mixture of both the academic and industrial advisors was instrumental to helping me grow as an entrepreneur.


Paolo  03:41

It makes a lot of sense. And which stage did the idea of Pyran start taking shape.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  03:50

During my PhD research, as a part of a large Department of Energy project focused on making high value chemicals from renewable lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks. And one key part of this project, it was actually very focused on both the fundamentals of the chemistry and the economic aspects. So, we were looking at full plant scale economics, minimum selling prices, IRR while I was also getting turnover frequencies on the catalyst in the lab, so it was a great project. And I think that's one reason that Pyran formed out of this project. As we show that, in addition to this great chemistry, we also had great economics. And that combination is really what fueled the beginning of Pyran.


Paolo  04:36

And this is what chemical engineers take a completely different than the typical chemistry. Is your taking chemical engineering linked to your, I don't know, idea of doing something meaningful, something practical that can actually happen in real life.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  04:50

Yeah, I think that's a fairly accurate statement. I mean, there's some great startups coming out of the chemistry department. There's lots of chemical engineers that don't focus on economics, but as a general point, I think that's true. And I think that's really something that Professor George Huber and the other people on the Department of Energy project team brought to the table that is pretty unique. There had been a lot of researchers looking at making our product, 1, 5 pentanediol from biomass. But there was very catalysis focus, and not economics focus, using a lot of very expensive noble metal rhodium-based catalysts, where we kind of counter intuitively expanded the number of reaction steps from one to three. Which from a high level, you would think, well, more steps more expensive. But having the actual economic data, Aspen modeling, actually showed that our catalyst costs were 50 times lower. So, this is an example where having this economic analysis in conjunction with the fundamental catalysis led to this outcome.


Paolo  05:55

It's interesting, because this is a fairly rare example of economic considerations leading to sort of technical choices, that you know, sort of PhD project. Which is something I've heard very often. So, was this somehow part of the of the whole project from the beginning?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  06:18

Certainly not at the very beginning, I was a typical struggling graduate student, my first project was trying to make 1,5 pentanediol in the one step process, and it was a typical first year and a half of graduate school, a lot of mistakes in the lab, a lot of learnings, and then the yields were not good enough. And that's kind of when we were fortunate to discover this new chemistry. And I don't want to downplay the chemistry. While the economics did drive the research, the chemistry is extremely interesting. And, and, and, and when we analyze the chemistry and the fundamentals, it's really the reason why the economics are so beneficial. And there's some aspects of biomass that made this possible. The economics possible.


Paolo  07:05

Okay, so let's let's do a step backward and one forward at same time. Okay. So I think I think it's fair now to introduce Pyran properly. And so let you explain what Pyran is and what it focuses on.



Yeah, so my startup company Pyran, focuses on making five carbon chemicals from renewable lignocellulosic biomass resources. The first product that we focused on was called 1,5 pentanediol. It's pretty simple chemical structure, five carbon atoms aliphatic chain with two hydroxyl groups on the end. So, as you can picture being difunctional, it's very good for making polymers. And so, it's a key monomer and a lot of different types of polymers, polyester polyols, polycarbonate polyols, acrylates. And it's really the core of the the backbone of the resin. So, a wide variety of markets. But the key premise here is that in the petrochemical industry, there's lots of four and six carbon molecules just by nature, when you take crude out of the ground, there's just a dearth of five carbon feedstocks. And it's expensive and difficult to break or make those carbon-carbon bonds. Whereas lignocellulosic biomass, if you're familiar, it has three main components lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose. With hemicellulose being a five-carbon feedstock. So that's actually an inherent advantage in making five-carbon feedstocks from biomass versus petroleum, and that's kind of the core premise of Pyran.


Paolo  08:41

So let's start from the synthesis then. So what just I guess you start from furfural, right, which is quite quite quite a standard starting point.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  08:49

That's correct. So, there's a conversion pathway either from the raw biomass or from the hemicellulose to convert it to furfural, which is the main five-carbon platform chemical from biomass and that is Pyran's feedstock.


Paolo  09:02

And then that's basically a reduction process there.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  09:07

Yeah, the core premise being instead of oxidizing petroleum from the four six-carbon fee stock here, you're selectively reducing from the five-carbon feedstock and you're filling kind of that petrochemical gap where there isn't many five-carbon molecules. It's actually a four-step process from furfural. The novelty of Pyran kind of starts from the next molecule, which is why I call it three step. But basically, it's a reduction you hydrogenate the furfural fully hydrogenated to touch hydro furfural alcohol, then you undergo vapor phase dehydration to dihydrate pyran. A liquid phase hydration due to hydroxy tetra hydro pyran And finally, a further hydrogenation to the 1,5 pentanediol. It sounds complex, but the yields are very high in each step and the chemistry is is really unique and that's really what I spent my PhD research on.


Paolo  10:04

I guess on one hand is having the chemistry working in the lab and on the other hand is industrializing a process and starting a company and actually starting making this commercially? What is the real challenge there?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  10:17

A key thing is, you know, my research was heterogeneous catalysis, it's looking at the fundamentals of the catalysts. However, from a business perspective, it's better to have more simple catalysts that are ideally actually commercially available. So, getting out of the mindset of trying to find a brand new fancy multifunctional catalysts actually trying to simplify the catalytic system is a learning I had.  And fortunately, the key to Pyran's technologies, the chemistry, not necessarily the exact how fancy the catalysts are. So, we were able to actually find industrial catalysts that we can plug in for a process and that lowers the costs and the difficulty of scale up by quite a bit. And there's a lot more considerations than catalysts. But that's one example of the shift in mindset from academia to industrial scale up.


Paolo  11:09

The pentanediol seems quite interesting to me, because you said it at the beginning, you know, these five-carbon monomers are relatively rare coming from the oil fields, right. But still, pentanediol is not something completely new, you know, it was known to be a useful, right. And so in a way, you didn't compete against a super well-established economics right of over product that you had to displace completely. You were kind of filling a void in a way, am I right?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  11:44

That's exactly right, Paolo and great insight. I kind of like you, when you think about replacing petroleum from biomass, you can kind of think of it in two extremes. One is replicate. Like ethylene glycol for PET, you're making the same exact molecule with very little technical risk, but then you're competing on price. Or you could make a brand-new material. Let's save furandicarboxylic acid is a big new one to replace PET films, which has completely different properties. And Paolo, as you mentioned, Pyran is kind of an in between where 1,5 pentanediol is out there in very small volumes from petroleum at very high costs. But it is something that is known and it is a chemical that's on the market today. So, we're really filling a void as well as finding new applications that were previously economically prohibitive that we can grow because of our better cost position.


Paolo  12:41

So, do you think this is the key why renewable technologies have been so far, in my opinion at least, fairly disappointing? I think people are focused a lot on trying to replace, right, oil-derived products rather than training rethink the whole thing.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  13:00

I think you're exactly right, Paolo. If you just think of chemical functionalities, I think we've kind of have a little narrow mindset into what's out there today. But when you think about biomass, and its inherent oxygen functionality, there's just such a wider chemical space that we can be filling that we tend to overlook. And I think there's inherent functionalities and biomass that we need to better advantage to make new materials.


Paolo  13:31

On the other hand, if I think about startups, you need to survive, right? So, you need to have something to sell as soon as reasonably possible. So, if you really are aiming at disrupting completely a market, you might not have a market in the first place. Do you think this is hampering, somehow, the success of companies focusing on bio-renewables?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  13:55

Yes, the barrier to introducing a brand new to the world material is extremely high, especially with how risk averse many of these large chemical companies are today. There are some coming online, but I think you're correct in that that has been a difficulty in new biomass technologies. I do think that's where Pyran is fortunate in that there is a market out there but not a large market out there for 1,5 pentanediol. So, our risk in introducing this new molecule is a little lower than if it were a brand new to the world product. And as you said, we're a startup we have to focus on what can make money soon. So that helps us get our foot into the marketplace. And from there, we can continue to grow and introduce new products that may be a little more risky or new, once we've established ourselves.


Paolo  14:44

To the best of your knowledge, is there any, are there any similar situations in the market? Are there other pentanediol kind of situation out there that yourself or other companies could potentially leverage going forward?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  14:58

It's hard for me to think of an exact example off the top of my head. Of course, there's a lot of, you know, companies trying to introduce bio-based materials to the marketplace, across the spectrum of directly replacing current petroleum-based molecules and bringing in brand new materials to the market. You know, for example, there's a lot of companies making 1,4 butanediol, which is one carbon atom less than our product, but is abundant from petroleum. And they've, there's been some struggles in that area replacing the lower cost butanediol molecule, I would say off the top of my head Pyran's in a very fortunate position to be in between the two extremes and to have a product that's on the market but not large. I think it's a pretty rare position to be in.


Paolo  15:54

We hope you're enjoying this episode of Bringing Chemistry to Life. And if you are, why don't you request your free podcast T-shirt? It can be a fun way to show your love for science. Stay tuned at the end of the episode for information on how to do that, as well as how to access content recommendations from our guest. And now back to our conversation. 


How much for Pyran, and other companies focusing on these sorts of renewable sources, face the difficulties of having a sort of inconsistent or unstable, if you wish, source of raw materials, because everything coming from from biomass is is not particularly consistent then batch-to-batch right, certainly less than less than the typical oil feedstock.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  16:41

That's a great point, Paolo, and a huge consideration in any bought new biomass technology. I see as kind of a cycle where the more commercializable biomass technologies come online, the more feedstock comes online, the more, the lower the risk in developing new biomass feedstock fractionation technologies. We're fortunate again, that today our feedstock, furfural, is made already at world scale. Primarily from corn cobs and sugarcane, but gas. However, it's critical for us and for other biomass technologies to develop more new and more stable biomass sources. And the more companies like Pyran, that that are out there, the more likely that there will be feedstock companies that are willing to to make our feedstocks and integrate the whole market.


Paolo  17:35

Does this mean in a way that is going to become easier for you guys going forward as the market develop?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  17:42

We think so. We're seeing a lot of a lot of momentum in developing new biomass to chemicals technologies. So, for instance, pulp and paper mills. The paper industry, you know, it's it's in a little trouble that, you know, people are more digital, they're looking for ways to increase, you know, money streams from their pulp and paper mills. And one way to do that is to make value add chemicals from their processes. So, it takes a lot of investment to reconfigure their their capital, their their plants. But that's something that a lot of pulp and paper mills are looking to do. And I think looking to the future, that's going to be a great stable source of biomass feedstocks.


Paolo  18:27

Is there anything else besides pentanediol that Pyran is currently looking at and working on? What's next for you guys?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  18:34

There's quite a few downstream five-carbon products we're looking at. We're actually already sampling our first product, which is pentanediol diacrylate. So, it's adding on to accurate, acrylate monomers on the end of our 1,5 pentanediol. And that's using ultraviolet-cure coatings. And that's a great example where, how we're looking at expanding as far as the chemistry is concerned, you have this difunctional, 1,5 pentanediol with the hydroxyl groups. But you know, you can picture two acid groups, two amine groups, with fairly simple chemical transformations. So, you know, and just like pentanediol, it's the same concept where those markets are also underserved. Those five-carbon markets are underserved from petroleum. So, you can see quite a bit of expansion opportunities once we establish ourselves.


Paolo  19:29

If you had to imagine the market decades from now, maybe a couple of decades from now. You know, with all these new technologies coming in and proposing new monomers new starting points for, you know, more complex materials manufacturing. Do you foresee the world being significantly different from the chemical perspective than it is today?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  19:52

Yes, I think it's gonna be a much bigger mix of bio-based and petroleum-based molecules. I don't envision, especially in the next couple of decades that petroleum will be replaced. And it'd be hypocritical of me to say that biomass has inherent functionalities that are beneficial and say it's claimed that petroleum doesn't. Because there are certain molecules that are easier and more cost effective and have better functionality that you can make from petroleum as well. So, I do see a mixture happening. Whereas the molecules that are continuing to be made from petroleum, we just have to improve the recyclability of those molecules.


Paolo  20:30

And I guess the key comes from the definition is, is there a new ability? Right, so I think we all have to accept at some point that the world we live in has finite resources, and we cannot keep consuming them forever, you know. And so, I think I think we are far from, you know, running out of oil. But yeah, that day will come at some point, or at least a day when extracting oil is not going to be economically viable anymore, will sooner sooner or later come. And and I think we're better at being ready for that moment, rather than them waiting for the last drop to be extracted from this. 


Dr. Kevin Barnett  21:08

Very true. If you think about the lifecycle analysis, you know, biomass-based materials, you're sequestering carbon from the air into the biomass into the product. So that's one key benefit over petroleum. But the second thing we need to look at is end of life. And this applies to both biomass and petroleum-based materials. And that's improved recyclability to further create that cycle. So, I think both of these are important considerations as we move forward.


Paolo  21:38

Of course, on the other hand, you have some other sort of controversial aspects of the use of bio-renewables. And I think what I'm thinking specifically is if people start replacing agricultural products for human consumption, and you know, feeding people literally, for something to make, you know, for energy purposes, or for making, you know, materials of some kind, and that is controversial. I think the real value is where you can, you can derive your feedstock from waste, right for something that cannot be used for other purposes. I think furfural is fairly well positioned from this perspective. But there are other compounds that aren't really, and biofuels are some of those. 


Dr. Kevin Barnett  22:18

That's exactly right. An important consideration in looking at biomass technologies as well what type of biomass and yes, starch base, there's other types that are competing with the food supply, and we need to be very conscious of that and where those fit in. But the feedstock Pyran uses in some other companies use is lignocellulosic, which is typically the non-food portion of the biomass. So as I said, it's the corn cob, not the kernel. It's stuff that's honestly it's it's burnt, it's laid in the field and you burn it, or you just let it sit there. So and as you mentioned, Paulo, furfural is made from the corn cob. So, it's really tapping into those waste streams, I think is the future of biochemicals.


Paolo  23:06

Can you mention for the benefit of our audience? What are other potential key chemicals from feedstock that that could become relevant in the coming years. You know, together with the furfural. There sounded already actual, I suppose.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  23:23

Yeah, and as I mentioned earlier, you know, looking at the main components of lignocellulosic, biomass, lignin, hemicellulose, and cellulose, I've been talking about the five-carbon hemicellulose string, which honestly is more of the forgotten stepchild of the three. So, we're one of the first people really focused on that stream. But there's actually even more attention to the cellulose stream, the six-carbon. Today, that's where your corn-based ethanol is made from, well, the six-carbon stream of other biomass feedstocks. And the big, I think the really hot bio-based material at the moment is called furandicarboxylic acid or FDCA. When you combine that with plant-based ethylene glycol, you have a 100% PET replacement plastic film, so water bottles, things of that nature, that's coming from the six-carbon fraction of biomass


Paolo  24:14

Are you at Pyran planning to focus on these starting materials at all, or you want to stick to your five-carbons monomers for now.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  24:25

We're really focused on the five-carbon. As you mentioned, as a startup, you have the the the money and the personnel to only do so much. But I do see in the future where you can integrate Pyran's technology in an integrated bio facility where you take, use our technology to create five-carbon value add products, but then you use other people's technology to valorize the lignin and the cellulose streams and I think that's certainly on the horizon.


Paolo  24:53

Like to go back to your you know, the end of your PhD and the time where you started founding and working on Pyran. And because this is fascinating, in my mind, you're very unique profile, there aren't that many people founding a company straight out of their PhD. And I guess, as we said before, there's been a strong role of some of your professors and supporters and advisors. But there, you know, it must have been a very, very challenging time for you. Can you comment of how it is, you know, becoming the CTO of a startup coming from a scientific background?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  25:30

Yes, it's certainly been a challenge and a new experience. But something I like to tell graduate students is we're actually better positioned to be entrepreneurs than we give ourselves credit for. By definition, almost by going to graduate school, we're very hardworking, and very, and most importantly, very good at multitasking. And that's really the name of the game and entrepreneurship. So, with the one caveat that yes, you don't have the business experience, you don't know what you don't know, you really need some good business advisors to help you with those things. As far as running the business on the ground, day to day, I think graduate students are actually well positioned to do so based off their inherent traits.


Paolo  26:13

So, I guess there has been a number of things that have been easier than you thought.


Dr. Kevin Barnett  26:20

It's all been difficult. But I think that the traits that I had to learn in graduate school lent well to dealing with the things you have to deal with in entrepreneurship, that perhaps some quote unquote businesspeople that us chemists think are more well suited for running businesses may not have. So just throwing that out there for the world.


Paolo  26:43

And what's been your biggest challenge? 


Dr. Kevin Barnett  26:45

It's, there's, there's a lot to running a business. And, as I mentioned, not knowing what you don't know, is the biggest challenge. So, you're learning every day, something new. And it's just about managing those challenges and taking them head on, and utilizing your advisors. But it's certainly a lot of work and a lot of learning on top of your graduate studies. So we're advantaged in that we we know the technology better than anyone if you're starting a company out of graduate school, but you have to then layer on the market, the fundraising, the scale up, those are all things that you have to learn to start a chemical venture,.


Paolo  27:26

The way you're speaking about is very clear that this is what you want to do, right? And you're very committed to your path now. And there's no going back for you, am I right?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  27:35

That's correct. I don't think I'll ever not be an entrepreneur at this point.


Paolo  27:41

Do you ever think that if your PhD didn't give the positive results that you actually got, you could have been on a completely different career?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  27:50

Absolutely. PhD students can't choose their project. In a lot of cases, it's actually very fortunate to be able to start a company out of your PhD project, a lot of things have to go right things I alluded to earlier on the economics and such. But if you have an eye towards entrepreneurship, which I did, it helps you see when opportunities do arise out of your PhD research. And if it doesn't, which is most often the case, you can always join a startup company coming out of school and then and go that route as well. But certainly, it was not a foregone conclusion. 


Paolo  28:32

After this consideration, I think this is a perfect segue into my typical final questions of all of my interviews.  You know, now, you are you're an entrepreneur with an ambitious plan, you have already achieved a lot and and I'm sure this bright future ahead of you. What is the one piece of advice you will give to someone younger than you just start in the studies, okay, here?


Dr. Kevin Barnett  28:56

A big piece of advice I would give to graduate students, whether they're interested in entrepreneurship or not, is actually to slow down just a little. This may be seem counterintuitive, coming from someone that starting a company. But looking back at my graduate research, I think I could have really benefited from slowing down taking more reading days and thinking critically. I was always 120% in the lab experiments all day into the evenings. I would actually recommend slowing down not only is it better for your work life balance, but I actually think it provides clarity in how you think about things and you actually be more productive in the long term. I think as younger, excited graduate students, we tend to maybe put our heads down and maybe work too hard sometimes.


Paolo  29:53

That was Dr. Kevin Barnett, co-founder of Pyran in Madison, Wisconsin, and one of the Chemical and Engineering News' Talented 12. Thanks for joining us for the season two episode of Bringing Chemistry to Life and keep an ear out for more. If you enjoyed this conversation, you're sure to enjoy Dr. Barnett's book, video, podcasts and other content recommendations. Look in the Episode Notes for the URL where you can access these recommendations and register for a free Bringing Chemistry to Life T-shirt with one click or visit This episode was produced by Matt Ferris, Matthew Stock and Emma-Jean Weinstein.