Case Study

Tackling sustainable chemistry challenges

Meet new University of Oxford spin-out, HydRegen

 

The idea behind new University of Oxford spin-out company HydRegen started as a masters project in 2009.  Co-founder of the company, Holly Reeve (pictured above on the right), then carried on the research towards a cleaner form of enzyme-driven chemistry through her PhD, under the supervision of Professor Kylie Vincent.  The plan was always to develop the technology so that it could form a business; Innovate UK/EPSRC funding from the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst fund gave the team 5 years to further develop the science and continue to look at the applicability of this sustainable chemistry technology as part of an academic team undertaking post-doctoral research. Sarah Cleary (pictured above on the right), CSO and co-founder of the company, was one of these post-docs, making her ideally placed to lead the industrial R&D. Given the goal of setting up a new company, Holly also spent the last few years developing the skills to run a business.  HydRegen was incorporated in December 2020, and formally span out of the University in March 2021, joining the community of innovative low carbon/environment focused businesses operating in Oxfordshire.

HydRegen is bringing a different approach to the production of speciality chemicals – the kinds of products used within the pharmaceutical industry, cosmetics and food.

“Our advantage is precision and quality of the end product” says Holly, who is now CEO of the company.  “In time we expect our technology to be more applicable to commodity chemicals but for the moment our customers will be the pharma and specialty chemicals sectors and their supply chains, and we will also be able to provide joint technology development projects for bespoke products.”

HydRegen’s technology allows producers of chemicals to get rid of toxic heavy metals, currently used as catalysts in the production of a range of products.  Replacing these catalysts with enzymes, powered by Hydrogen, will also lower the amount of energy used in traditional methods of manufacture and minimise waste production.  The technology uses Hydrogen as an energy source to regenerate ‘co-factors’ – biological molecules needed to drive the action of enzymes – and the whole system is reusable too.

Holly benefitted from participating in the ICURe programme, funded by Innovate UK.  It effectively bought Holly’s time so that she could really focus on exploring the market for the team’s technology.  This allowed Holly to test the ideas behind the business with potential customers.  It was this experience that persuaded HydRegen to focus on sustainable chemistry.

“Customers really liked the sustainability angle – many companies are driven by the need to reduce energy and environmental impacts, but they don’t have the tools” Holly adds.

The ICURe programme provided a route to follow-on Innovate UK funding to start the company, and this has been supplemented by an additional funding award from University of Oxford’s Seed Challenge fund to get the company going.  They are now operating with lab space at Begbroke Science Park and will start their technology development work this March.  The company is also looking for investors and have been speaking to a number of VCs and recently pitched to angel investors through Oxford Investment Opportunity Network (OION).  ICURe and OION have helped the team develop their pitch to get interest from less technical investors, who may not be so focused on the detail of the innovative chemistry but are motivated by the company’s sustainability agenda.

The next stage is to get prototypes into the hands of potential customers so that they can get feedback and start to address key questions on ease of use, sustainability metrics, and other advantages over currently available products.  Holly hopes it won’t be long before they can sell cartridges, pre-loaded with the enzyme products inside, that can be slotted into existing production facilities.  The next goal will be to validate the technology at scale. Covid-19 will likely slow some of their plans, as potential customers may not have as much capacity at the moment to trial the products, but the team expects it will not be long before they can start to work with end users to quantify the benefits and advantages of the technology.

“One of our key challenges is focusing the business” concludes Holly, “there is lots of potential in the approach.”

To find out more about the technology, HydRegen has produced a helpful animation demonstrating the hydrogen-powering of the enzyme/co-factor system. Take a look at http://vincent.chem.ox.ac.uk/hydregen

You can also follow the company on twitter @HydRegen_Oxford

HydRegen co-founders Sarah Cleary (L) and Holly Reeve (R)

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