How did she do it? A Q&A with Kristala Jones Prather, Ph.D., Chief Scientist and Co-founder of Kalion
Joan Zief, Managing Director of Golden Seeds, Member of Board of Directors of KalionApril 4, 2019
She wanted to work with science that was not just stimulating, but also had real-world applications. So, while running her own research lab and teaching at MIT, she set her sights on taking a molecule used for industrial purposes to the next level.
Golden Seeds’ Joan Zief discussed with Kristala how her company created a more biologically-friendly, cost-effective way to produce a compound that now has even greater potential than ever imagined.
JZ: Tell us about the origins of your company.
KJP: In my “day job,” I’m a professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at MIT. Previously, I was with Merck Research Labs. While there, I was considering my next move and realized I wanted to work with science that was both intellectually challenging and had commercial applications. So, I started my own research lab focused on biological production of chemical compounds, operating out of MIT.
Soon after, I filed some initial patents. There’s a deadline for converting these to full-fledged patents, and when the clock starts ticking, MIT will ask inventors if there is any interest in commercialization. I discussed this with a former peer from Merck with deep experience in scale-up of fermentation-based products, Neal Connors, and with my husband, Darcy Prather, an experience entrepreneur.
We all agreed there was great potential, so we co-founded Kalion in 2011. Darcy also now serves as President of the company.
JZ: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from the way others have addressed this need?
KJP: We’re an industrial biotech company producing a compound called glucaric acid. From pharmaceutical use as a counterion to replacing phosphates in wastewater treatment — whether a manufacturer produces detergents, paints, diapers or fiber products — the possibilities for how biofriendly, high-purity glucaric acid can be used seem endless.
Still, there are steep challenges to commercializing new molecules. The cost of traditional development methods for many of these can be so high they just aren’t feasible. Often, they can be cultivated in a greener manner, one that’s also more cost-efficient and offers greater benefits than oil-based molecules.
Think about fermentation. The context most are familiar with involves micro-organisms like yeast or bacteria that take sugars and convert them into ethanol for use in alcoholic beverages. It’s very efficient and that’s why many have worked for years to try and engineer those organisms to produce compounds that are useful in other ways.
Our process utilizes biological organisms, which generate less waste during production and performs better in products like polymers because the molecules can be produced with higher purity. We did have two major competitors — neither are in operation any longer. The reason is that they were using chemical processes as opposed to fermentation-based, biological ones. They weren’t able to produce a pure enough material because they lacked sufficient control over the reactions to avoid generating byproducts that found their way into the final product.
We have that control — the quality is superior and the production process is reliable. We can ensure access to a renewable “feedstock,” so manufacturers know it’s always going to be available. We also developed methods downstream to isolate and purify the compound in many different forms, ensuring a wider variety of end-uses.
To the best of our knowledge, there’s no competitor that can produce glucaric acid more economically. As a result, we’re uniquely positioned to provide a volume of glucaric acid capable of meeting market demands.
JZ: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
KJP: Other than perfecting the fermentation process to create glucaric acid at a commercial scale, the biggest challenge we faced was investor perception of the addressable market. The only related experience they had was with biofuels. So, we had to spend a lot of time educating investors on how glucaric acid can be used not only in pharmaceuticals and energy drinks, which are the current markets, but also for other products due to its varied enhancement properties from improving corrosion destruction, fabric strength, and coating adherence properties just to name a few.
We had to quantify not only the different applications and but also the potential of target market size. We needed to convince them of the value of what we were producing, the economics of production, and how we had a unique ability to meet a volume that would make this viable.
There were technology challenges, but really, the greatest hurdle was to make sure we weren’t being lumped into the same category as biofuels and those companies who ended up disappointing investors.
JZ: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
KJP: We just finished another round of financing, which Golden Seeds has again participated in. We also already have a primary customer who has expressed interest in buying as much glucaric acid as we can produce.
That said, talks are underway with toll manufacturers, which essentially have facilities to produce our product for a fee. This will allow us to scale cost-effectively and quickly. We’re working on finalizing the details for a technology transfer and expect to be selling product in very large volumes by the end of this year.
JZ: What advice do you have for early-stage founders about raising money, growing a team, fostering company culture or other issues you’ve had to address?
KJP: MIT is filled with young people who often want to start a company. They’re graduating, it seems more exciting to be an entrepreneur than going to work at an existing company, and they see a lot of people raising money and think, “How hard can this really be?”
The truth is, it’s very difficult. My advice is to be thoughtful. Know what problem you are trying to solve, what market you want to enter, what opportunity you’re going to create. Consider the value you have to add and what you can contribute. You need to first have a well thought-out plan based on sound analysis, not just wishful thinking.
Further, build healthy, trusting relationships with investors. Something I’m proud of is that our investors consider us very responsible stewards. Be open and as forthright as possible, share bad news as readily as you do good. Become partners with your investors so they can enjoy not just your accomplishments, but also work alongside you as a team in the immediate and long term to address challenges as they arise.
JZ: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the Golden Seeds network been helpful to you?
KJP: My favorite Golden Seeds story was early on, when we were in the due diligence phase and having various meetings. Understand, I’m a scientist at heart. But during that time, I began to realize not everyone wanted to drill down on the science as much as I did. There were other areas they wanted to discuss.
Then, when we sat down with Golden Seeds, in walked a team member with one of my papers. She had a background in biology, had researched the science and was excited to learn more. That’s my experience with Golden Seeds — they’re interested. It’s not just about throwing money over a wall and waiting for money to come back.
Then, frankly, I love the annual Golden Seeds Summit. When I travel to scientific events, I can’t help but wonder if they’ll be more than a few women on the program. Seeing all of these women every January who are so amazing is refreshing and inspiring.
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