Chemicals are critical to creating products in a plethora of industries across the globe, including computer chips, sensors, and other electronics. But traditional processes for separating chemicals before incorporating them into products are energy-, emissions-, and cost-intensive.
Skokie, Illinois-based chemistry design startup NuMat Technologies announced a new partnership with Japanese chemical company Sumitomo Chemical to develop more energy-efficient and cost-effective chemical separation technologies.
“You take all kinds of chemicals and apply tremendous pressure and energy to try to separate them into different components, and they become raw materials that go into all kinds of consumer goods or industrial goods. … It’s a process that not only consumes a lot of energy, but it’s not really carbon-friendly, either,” said NuMat Technologies co-founder and CEO Ben Hernandez. “We need to rethink how we can develop new technologies that can be much more carbon-neutral. … We’re helping Sumitomo develop new technologies that could put them in the position to be carbon-neutral by 2050.”
NuMat is a startup that spun out of Northwestern University. It develops nanomaterials called metal-organic frameworks, a class of crystalline structures consisting of positively charged metal ions and organic linking molecules. They are getting attention for potential use in next-generation clean energy technologies — especially storage for gases like hydrogen and methane — and in electronics.
MOFs act like “super Brita filters,” Hernandez said, and can separate and capture targeted chemicals at the smallest possible level. This holds promise for dramatically reducing the energy and carbon intensity of how chemicals are currently produced, in a process called cryogenic distillation.
“We started as a software company, but then we vertically integrated,” Hernandez said. “We’re using software and digital technology to accelerate discovery cycles and new materials, but then we actually pair that with the ability to make the materials we computationally discovered and integrate them into products and processes.”
On being Midwest-based
Hernandez said the Midwest has proven to be an appropriate location for NuMat compared to traditional tech hubs on the coasts.
“There’s really good talent here … and the entry cost of starting a company and building a really strong team is lower in the Midwest,” Hernandez said.
But of course, there are challenges to the location.
“I think the challenge is that you tend to have a much more conservative investor and capital base,” he said. “I think it really becomes incumbent on companies that are here to be even more outstanding and even more capital-efficient … than what would be expected of companies on the coasts to attract coastal capital.”
Other challenges include the basics: “Developing new materials… is really hard to do,” Hernandez said with a laugh. “It’s really high risk to do right, and it can take a really long time.”
Being on the leading edge of an industry has benefits — like not having tons of competition — but it also forces innovators to blaze their own trail.
“When you’re doing something in a field where you’re the first, you have to work harder. You can’t point to other people who have done what you’ve done or scaled companies the way you’re choosing to scale your business,” Hernandez said. “We spun out of an academic environment and were working on emerging chemistry that no one had ever commercialized, so the burden of proof was on us.”
One of Hernandez’s personal goals is to build the best team of employees because companies are “nothing more than the summation of the people and individuals who work there,” he said. “Every company is fundamentally a human endeavor.”
Building the right team involves keeping an eye toward diversity. Nearly 40% of the staff are Americans who are Black, Hispanic, or Asian, which makes the company stand out in its field, Hernandez said. But he says there’s room for improvement.
“Half of the executive team are people of color, but there’s no women on the executive team,” Hernandez said. “That’s something that we’re working on and we try to be really thoughtful about.”
He said that NuMat excels at age diversity, whereas many startups are biased against people who are over 40 or 50.
“We’re getting people who have some of the best aspects of coming from an early career environment where they’re aggressive and willing to try anything and take risks. But we’re pairing them with really experienced people who have years in a certain sector or industry — people who even may have pulled out of retirement — pairing them to teach and mentor,” Hernadez said. “I’m really proud of that.”
NuMat Technologies is a growth-stage company that already has products on the market. They’re looking to further scale over the next year and develop new partnerships for next-gen material innovations.
“I think our growth path over the next 12 months or so is really around expanding the platform and having more of these types of partnerships, like we have with Sumitomo Chemicals,” Hernandez said. “I think what the future holds for us is working on the really important, tough problems that matter. … We take pride in working on things that people haven’t solved.”