Sustainable Growth: Professor Gross's SyntheZyme Gets Boost from NSF Grant

SyntheZyme is refining its technology to create biopesticides from the biofermentation of natural sugars and oils, such as soybean or palm oil.

SyntheZyme, a sustainable chemical company at the leading edge of bioplastic monomer development and biosurfactants — the technology that makes things like biobased biodegradable plastics and safe biopesticides possible — founded by Professor of Polytechnic Institute of NYU’s Chemical and Biological Sciences Department recently received a Phase I SBIR grant of $150,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to test the feasibility of its products.

Between now and June, the company will rely on the biofermentation of natural sugars and oils, such as soybean or palm oil, to develop a biosurfactant with pesticidal activity, in other words, a product that will protect wheat, fruits, vegetables and other crops from harmful insects without the use of harsh, inorganic chemical agents. “Tuning nature’s product to make it a little better” is how Professor Gross describes the complex process.

His modesty contrasts with the admirable enthusiasm of Manoj “Maddy” Ganesh, a SyntheZyme employee and fourth-year doctoral candidate in NYU-Poly’s materials chemistry program. “We are part of that big moment that is green chemistry,” he says of the company.

Partnering with NYU-Poly

Somewhere between their statements lies the innovation that attracted NYU-Poly to SyntheZyme. Professor Gross and NYU-Poly had secured several patents in the past based on Professor Gross’s research and NYU-Poly was extremely encouraged by the opportunity to help SyntheZyme commercialize its technology. So in 2008 a formal partnership was established when Bruce Niswander, director of NYU-Poly’s business incubators, connected Professor Gross to Richard Fishbein, a member of NYU-Poly’s board of trustees with extensive merger and acquisition experience who helped with the search for a CEO. Frank Shinneman, a veteran of successful, early-stage technology ventures in the region, became the CEO to lead the company.

Today the collaboration allows SyntheZyme to develop its technology in the Institute’s laboratories, real estate that would otherwise be an expensive outlay for a start-up. The partnership also gives the company ready access to talented PhD students, while providing students with valuable — and unexpected — business and scientific training.

A dual degree

“It’s almost like you’re getting your PhD and MBA,” says Ganesh of his time with SyntheZyme. “We are given active participation in meetings, and we are asked to write proposals that actually carry weight. These are certainly not things that a normal PhD student gets a chance to do.”

To Professor Gross, that outcome is a perfect example of NYU-Poly’s i2e — innovation, invention, and entrepreneurship — philosophy at work. “It’s wonderful to have classes that teach people how to start a business,” he says. “It’s another to be actually involved in the process.”

“A student that comes out of this experience — and a professor that comes out of this experience,” he laughs, as he continues, “has a tremendous advantage in the way that they would be able to work with industry any time after.”

Tomorrow’s tomatoes today?

“After” — just how long does Professor Gross mean? “Tomorrow wouldn’t be too soon,” jokes Shinneman before outlining SyntheZyme’s expectations for bringing a finished product to market. “A year or two,” he says.

He’s identifying the company’s targeted timeline for its biopesticide products but cautions that SyntheZyme’s work on bioplastic monomers will take longer. “We’re still in launch stage,” Shinneman explains. In the meantime, fans of the company await SyntheZyme’s contribution to bringing produce free of chemical pesticides to our tables and reducing our dependence on petrochemicals.