SEB Greentech Venture Capital is a unit within SEB that invests in green technology, focusing on transformative ideas that promise substantial impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or in preventing transgression of the planetary boundaries. They can invest in hardware, software and technology platform solutions, in sectors ranging from renewable energy, energy storage, water and agricultural technology, circular business models, to waste management.
Holding the key to sustainable chemical production
Karim Engelmark Cassimjee lifts a beaker and shakes the contents. Here at this laboratory in Karolinska Science Park some 50 chemists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and business developers from all over the world are working on developing and commercialising processes for sustainable chemical production. “We realised early on that we were onto something big that can change the rules of the game for the entire chemical industry,” says Karim.
Karim Engelmark Cassimjee is CEO and co-founder of the Swedish chemical company EnginZyme. We meet him on the company’s premises for a chat about how it all started. He explains how he considers Friday the thirteenth to be his favourite date and describes the two eureka moments when he realised that EnginZyme was on the trail of something big.
It was when Karim was doing his PhD in biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, that he researched the possibilities of using enzymes for chemical manufacture. Up to now there has not been any obvious way to do this, partly because enzymes cannot be used in a solid form as preferred by industry.
“In my research I invented a way to do just that which works for all types of enzymes. This means that you get access to the fantastic chemistry which is found in the billions of enzymes that are everywhere in nature. Based on this, I decided together with my co-founder to start EnginZyme.”
Catalysers in chemical processes
Enzymes are so-called catalysers, a type of protein that speeds up a chemical reaction (changing a starting material to a product).
“When you eat a sweet you take in sugar which is then broken down in several steps to energy and component parts that the body uses. This process is enabled by enzymes,” he explains.
However, in the chemical industry the use of enzymes is limited. Instead, heavy metals are often used to catalyse chemical reactions.
Surrounded by chemical products
The chemical industry is important and makes products that we all need.
“Everything we see around us comes from the chemical industry. It is the foundation of our modern society. Even your body consists to a great extent of products from the chemical industry since you eat food which comes from fields where artificial fertiliser has been used. About half the nitrogen in your body comes from there.”
But today’s chemical industry has three problems, as Karim sees it.
“Firstly, there is insufficient bio-based starting material. Instead, it is mainly fossil based material that is transformed into everything from medicines to plastics.
“The second problem is that the manufacturing processes are very energy intensive since the heavy metals used require high temperatures and the processes include energy demanding purification stages.
“The third problem is that an enormous amount of waste is created. Heavy metal catalysers are not specific which means that for every product that is produced a great deal of waste is generated. It is not uncommon that the process results in more waste than the product itself. For complex products such as medicines you can generate 100 times more waste than product.”
The solution is to replace the heavy metals with enzymes, says Karim.
“If the heavy metals are replaced by enzymes in a form that the industry can use effectively, considerably less energy is required. The enzymes are quite simply better catalysers. They are specific to creating the desired product at a low temperature. This reduces energy consumption and generates less waste. In addition, it is possible to increase the use of bio-based starting material, something that enzymes have developed to work on over billions of years. So, we are solving a fundamental societal problem.”
Started company in 2014
EnginZyme started in 2014 and the original idea was to sell the material for binding enzymes that Karim had developed during his research.
“Two years later we quit our jobs and started working full-time with EnginZyme. Then we started to employ researchers and received the first funding. But it was not until 2018 that we realised that the company we were building must be process-oriented,” he says.
This means that EnginZyme has switched to developing a platform for complete manufacturing processes for the industry.
When did you realise that this could take off?
“There were two eureka moments. The first was when we realised that we could use all the enzymes in the world. We saw that this was huge. The other was when we realised that we should not sell the material itself but should build a complete solution platform which can be used in industrial processes and therefore have a much greater impact from improved chemical production.
“This was the basis on which we completed our Series A funding round. It was Friday the thirteenth of March 2020, straight after the stock exchanges crashed due to the corona pandemic. Therefore, Friday the thirteenth is my favourite date.”
Who are the customers?
“Companies that want to develop new enzyme-based manufacturing processes. For example, we have partnered with Tetra Pak around process solutions for the manufacture of yoghurt, milk, fruit juice, and so on. We also have ongoing collaborations with other large manufacturing companies.
The business model is primarily to develop licenced manufacturing processes for others, but there is also an idea in the long term to set up our own manufacturing plant and sell products.
“We are not there yet, but it is on the map.”
Where does your interest in changing the chemical industry come from?
“Partly I have a nerdy interest in enzymes, research and biotechnology. It is fascinating to drill down to the molecular level and understand how the processes really work.
“Then it is about me as an engineer wanting to contribute to a better world. It is something of a calling. We need chemical products, but we cannot have today’s processes. In the future we will laugh at needing mining to manufacture chemical products.”
What is the goal for this year?
“Now we have developed the technology, demonstrated that it works and is scalable for large processes. This year and next the goal is to get it implemented in full-scale in a commercial manufacturing process. This will make it easier to convince more manufacturers to use our technology.”
SEB Greentech, the bank’s unit for investing venture capital in green technology, has made an investment in EnginZyme.
What does this mean?
“It is fantastic to have the backing of a well-known actor such as SEB. The bank also contributes skills, advice and an understanding of additional opportunities to reach other investors within SEB’s network.”
Read more about EnginZyme at: enginzyme.com
Article published on June 14, 2022
Text: Niklas Munter
Photo: Joel Sherwood