Q&A: A blueprint for sustainable innovation | MIT News

Atacama Biomaterials is a startup combining structure, machine studying, and chemical engineering to create eco-friendly supplies with a number of purposes. Obsessed with sustainable innovation, its co-founder Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas SM 15, PhD 21 highlights right here how MIT has supported the mission by a number of of its entrepreneurship initiatives, and displays on the function of design in constructing a holistic imaginative and prescient for an increasing enterprise.

Q: What function do you see your startup taking part in within the sustainable supplies area?

A: Atacama Biomaterials is a enterprise devoted to advancing sustainable supplies by state-of-the-art expertise. With my co-founder Jose Tomas Dominguez, we have now been engaged on growing our expertise since 2019. We initially began the corporate in 2020 underneath one other title and obtained Sandbox funds the following yr. In 2021, we went by The Engine’s accelerator, Blueprint, and altered our title to Atacama Biomaterials in 2022 through the MITdesignX program. 

This expertise we have now developed permits us to create our personal information and materials library utilizing synthetic intelligence and machine studying, and serves as a platform relevant to numerous industries horizontally — biofuels, organic medicine, and even mining. Vertically, we produce cheap, regionally sourced, and environmentally pleasant bio-based polymers and packaging — that’s, naturally compostable plastics as a flagship product, together with AI merchandise.

Q: What motivated you to enterprise into biomaterials and located Atacama?

A: I’m from Chile, a rustic with a good looking, wealthy geography and nature the place we will see all the issues stemming from trade, waste administration, and air pollution. We named our firm Atacama Biomaterials as a result of the Atacama Desert in Chile — one of many locations the place you possibly can finest see the celebrities on the planet — is changing into a plastic dump, as many different locations on Earth. I care deeply about sustainability, and I’ve an emotional attachment to cease these issues. Contemplating that manufacturing accounts for 29 % of worldwide carbon emissions, it’s clear that sustainability has a task in how we outline expertise and entrepreneurship, in addition to a socio-economic dimension.

Once I first got here to MIT, it was to develop software program within the Division of Structure’s Design and Computation Group, with MIT professors Svafa Gronfeldt as co-advisor and Regina Barzilay as committee member. Throughout my PhD, I studied machine-learning strategies simulating pedestrian movement to grasp how folks transfer in area. In my work, I’d use a number of plastics for 3D printing and I couldn’t cease enthusiastic about sustainability and local weather change, so I reached out to materials science and mechanical engineering professors to look into biopolymers and degradable bio-based supplies. That is how I met my co-founder, as we had been each working with MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld. Collectively, we had been a part of one of many first groups on the planet to 3D print wooden fibers, which is troublesome — it’s sluggish and costly — and shortly pivoted to sustainable packaging. 

I then received a fellowship from MCSC [the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium], which gave me freedom to discover additional, and I ultimately acquired a postdoc in MIT chemical engineering, guided by MIT Professor Gregory Rutledge, a polymer physicist. This was surprising in my profession path. Profitable Nucleate Eco Observe 2022 and the MITdesignX Innovation Award in 2022 profiled Atacama Biomaterials as one of many rising startups in Boston’s biotechnology and climate-tech scene.

Q: What’s your course of to develop new biomaterials?

A: My PhD analysis, coupled with my background in materials growth and molecular dynamics, sparked the conclusion that ideas I studied simulating pedestrian movement may additionally apply to molecular engineering. This connection could appear unconventional, however for me, it was a pure development. Early in my profession, I developed an instinct for supplies, understanding their mechanics and physics.

Utilizing my expertise and expertise, and leveraging machine studying as a expertise leap, I utilized the same conceptual framework to simulate the trajectories of molecules and discover potential purposes in biomaterials. Making that parallel and shift was superb. It allowed me to optimize a state-of-the-art molecular dynamic software program to run twice as quick as extra conventional applied sciences by my algorithm offered on the Worldwide Convention of Machine Studying this yr. This is essential, as a result of this sort of simulation often takes every week, so narrowing it down to 2 days has main implications for scientists and trade, in materials science, chemical engineering, pc science and associated fields. Such work enormously influenced the inspiration of Atacama Biomaterials, the place we developed our personal AI to deploy our supplies. In an effort to mitigate the environmental influence of producing, Atacama is focusing on a 16.7 % discount in carbon dioxide emissions related to the manufacturing strategy of its polymers, by using renewable power. 

One other factor is that I used to be educated as an architect in Chile, and my diploma had a design part. I believe design permits me to grasp issues at a really excessive degree, and the way issues interconnect. It contributed to growing a holistic imaginative and prescient for Atacama, as a result of it allowed me to leap from one expertise or self-discipline to a different and perceive broader purposes on a conceptual degree. Our design strategy additionally meant that sustainability got here to the middle of our work from the very starting, not only a plus or an added price.

Q: What was the function of MITdesignX in Atacama’s growth?

A: I’ve identified Svafa Grönfeldt, MITdesignX’s college director, for nearly six years. She was the co-advisor of my PhD, and we had a mentor-mentee relationship. I love the truth that she created an area for folks taken with enterprise and entrepreneurship to develop inside the Division of Structure. She and Govt Director Gilad Rosenzweig gave us incredible recommendation, and we obtained vital help from mentors. For instance, Daniel Tsai helped us with mental property, together with a vital patent for Atacama. And we’re nonetheless in contact with the remainder of the cohort. I actually like this “design your organization” strategy, which I discover fairly distinctive, as a result of it provides us the chance to mirror on who we wish to be as designers, technologists, and entrepreneurs. Learning person insights additionally allowed us to grasp the broad applicability of our analysis, and align our imaginative and prescient with market calls for, finally shaping Atacama into an organization with a holistic perspective on sustainable materials growth.

Q: How does Atacama strategy scaling, and what are the fast subsequent steps for the corporate?

A: Once I take into consideration conducting our imaginative and prescient, I really feel actually impressed by my 3-year-old daughter. I would like her to expertise a world with bushes and wildlife when she’s 100 years outdated, and I hope Atacama will contribute to such a future.

Going again to the designer’s perspective, we designed the entire course of holistically, from feedstock to materials growth, incorporating AI and superior manufacturing. Having proved that there’s a demand for the supplies we’re growing, and having examined our merchandise, manufacturing course of, and expertise in important environments, we at the moment are able to scale. Our degree of technology-readiness is akin to the one utilized by NASA (degree 4).

Now we have proof of idea: a biodegradable and recyclable packaging materials which is cost- and energy-efficient as a clear power enabler in large-scale manufacturing. Now we have obtained pre-seed funding, and are sustainably scaling by benefiting from obtainable sources around the globe, like repurposing equipment from the paper trade. As offered within the MIT Industrial Liaison and STEX Program’s current Sustainability Convention, in contrast to our opponents, we have now cost-parity with present packaging supplies, in addition to low-energy processes. And we additionally proved the demand for our merchandise, which was an vital milestone. Our subsequent steps contain strategically increasing our manufacturing capabilities and analysis services and we’re at present evaluating constructing a manufacturing facility in Chile and establishing an R&D lab plus a producing plant within the U.S.

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