CU-Boulder chemical and biological engineers help fuel economy with 10 entrepreneurial startups

Published: Aug. 15, 2011

Chemical and biological engineering students and faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder have launched several innovative technologies that are fueling Colorado's economy by creating jobs and drawing significant funding to the state, including a $155 million investment in Sundrop Fuels in July.

Ten active companies have been created since 1997 based on technologies invented wholly or in part by chemical and biological engineering students and theirfaculty supervisors. More than 20 students have played an active role in developing these new ventures.

Chemical and biological engineering spinoff companies from CU-Boulder have raised nearly $410 million in follow-on funding, including grants, venture capital financing, U.S. Small Business Administration funding, and acquisitions, according to the University of Colorado's Technology Transfer Office.

"Chemical and biological engineering research at the University of Colorado is contributing to the economic development of Colorado and the nation through the development of high-impact technologies and new companies that are creating job growth," said department chair Christopher Bowman. "The Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering is commercializing technologies in critical areas of alternative fuels and chemicals, vaccines, therapeutic proteins and nanomaterials."

One of the greatest success stories has been Copernican Energy, an ultra-clean, bio-based fuels company using a high-temperature radiant particle reactor to turn cellulosic material into green gasoline. The company was co-founded in2006 by CU Professor Al Weimer, CU student Chris Perkins who earned his doctorate the same year, and alumnus Mike Masterson, who earned a master's degree in chemical engineering at CU in 1977.

The spinoff was acquired by Sundrop Fuels in 2008, and the Louisville-based company, which has 22 employees and a number of different contractors, received a $155 million investment, amounting to a 50 percent stake in the company, from Chesapeake NG Ventures Corp. in July. Sundrop Fuels previously had raised $62 million in support.

"The students are driving the entrepreneurial mission -- they're looking for inventions to make and then to commercialize," Weimer said. "Many have seen their parents forced to take early retirement and so forth, and they are interested in working for themselves."

OPX Biotechnologies is another large spinoff, having raised $60 million in two rounds of fundraising. Co-founded by Professor Ryan Gill and CU graduate Mike Lynch (Ph.D. ‘05, M.D. '07), the Boulder-based company is using its technology to manufacture renewable bio-based chemicals and fuels that are lower cost, higher return and more sustainable than existing petroleum-based products. The company, which has 47 employees, signed a joint development agreement with Dow Chemical in April to prove the technical and economic viability of an industrial-scale process to produce acrylic acid using a fermentable sugar feedstock, a more environmentally friendly product than petroleum-based acrylic acid.

Other successful ventures spun off from the CU-Boulder chemical and biological engineering department include:

--BaroFold, an Aurora-based biotechnology company co-founded by CU-Boulder Professor Ted Randolph and John Carpenter of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, has developed a technology that increases the safety of therapeutic proteins and lowers their production cost. Using $12 million in venture funding, BaroFold successfully completed Phase I human clinical trials for a protein-based therapy for multiple sclerosis. BaroFold is now working with Nuron Biotech Inc. and the Merck BioManufacturing Network to produce the protein for ongoing Phase III clinical trials.

--ION Engineering, a Boulder clean-tech company integrating ionic liquids in solutions to capture carbon and other contaminants from gases, was founded based on technology developed in the laboratories of CU-Boulder professors Rich Noble and Doug Gin. ION recently announced a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy to demonstrate its novel solvent technology.

--ALD NanoSolutions, a Broomfield company co-founded by CU-Boulder professors Al Weimer and Steve George, along with CU alumni Mike Masterson (M.S. '77) and Karen Buechler (Ph.D. '99), is developing an atomic layer deposition coating technology that can apply designed coatings at the nanometer scale on particles of any size, creating various commercial opportunities for new materials development and integration. The company was awarded a $749,000 Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant in June.

--RxKinetix, a Louisville-based company, was founded by a teamincluding CU-Boulder Professor Ted Randolph and Anschutz Medical Campus Professor Mark Manning to commercialize their microsphere-based drug delivery system. RxKinetix was acquired by Endo Pharmaceuticals in 2006.

Other spinoff companies with involvement from chemical and biological engineering include Aktiv-Dry and Mosaic Biosciences.

For more information about the CU-Boulder Department of Chemical and BiologicalEngineering go to