The Startup That's Decarbonizing Industries and Transforming Waste Gas into Everyday Essentials

Wyss Institute-backed startup Circe, raises $8 million to commercialize a bioproduction platform that promises carbon-negative manufacturing
Energy & Environment
May 16, 2024

In the realm of advanced bioproduction, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has made a momentous announcement. Today, Circe, a startup nurtured within the Institute and subsequently spun out of Harvard, has secured a worldwide, exclusive licensing agreement. This landmark deal, facilitated by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD), is set to globalize an innovative bioproduction technology that holds the potential to significantly reduce the carbon emissions of diverse industries, spanning from food production to aviation fuel, thereby making a substantial contribution to the fight against climate change.

Circe has successfully raised over $8 million from a roster of investors, including Regen Ventures, Undeterred Capital, Ponderosa Ventures, Bee Partners, and Elementum Ventures.

"One of the great challenges humanity faces is how to maintain global growth and production and decarbonize everything at the same time. Circe is addressing this critical problem by using gas fermentation to manufacture the products and molecules we need in a carbon-negative way," stated Shannon Nangle, Ph.D., a co-founder of Circe alongside Marika Ziesack, Ph.D., both members of the Wyss Institute.

The foundation of Circe’s technology lies in the laboratory of Wyss Core Faculty member Pamela Silver, Ph.D. The technology employs microbes that thrive on gases such as carbon dioxide, mirroring the growth mechanism of plants, and subsequently harvests the molecules they generate. Through the art of synthetic biology, Nangle and Ziesack have fine-tuned the metabolisms of specific microbes that inherently consume greenhouse gases, enabling them to convert these gases into valuable industrial molecules. Their platform has already produced molecules akin to sugars, fats, biodegradable plastics, and biofuels, relying solely on CO2, water, and electricity as inputs.

"In order to ensure that the Earth is habitable for future generations of humans, we urgently need to decarbonize industries and start reversing the damage we’ve caused to the planet. Microbes are wonderful living machines that we can leverage to produce the things we need for everyone to live a happy, comfortable life while reducing pollution, land use, and fossil fuel consumption," remarked Silver, who also holds the title of Elliot T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

Circe's pioneering product line focuses initially on triglycerides, the fundamental components of fats, butter, and oils integral to our daily lives. They have even utilized their triglycerides to create the world's first gas fermentation-derived chocolate. This breakthrough could alleviate the global cocoa shortage anticipated in the 2023-2024 growing season, offering a potential remedy to disruptions in the global food supply chain. Moreover, this innovation signifies the possibility of producing food products in any region, thereby diminishing the industry's carbon footprint.

The Circe team is ambitiously exploring additional fat types, including milkfat, which enhances creaminess in dairy and non-dairy milk products, and palm oil, which has applications in the food and cosmetics industries and as a sustainable fuel.

The Wyss Institute played a crucial role in the genesis and risk mitigation of Circe’s fermentation platform through its validation pipeline, a resource that equips budding entrepreneurs with the necessary tools to transition their technologies from the lab to the marketplace. Recognizing its potential for a substantial positive impact, the platform was designated an Institute Project in 2021 and received further funding from Wyss to accelerate its path to commercialization.

Throughout its evolution, Circe has garnered several accolades, a testament to its groundbreaking concept. While still at Wyss, the team received $3.2 million from the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E ECOSynBio program. Additionally, Nangle and Ziesack were honored as 2021 Activate Fellows. Post-spinout, Nangle was distinguished as an “Innovator Under 35” by MIT Tech Review.

"For centuries, humans’ relationship with Nature has been dominated by extraction, destruction, and consumption. A paradigm shift to one of conservation, regeneration, and co-production using Nature's building materials rather than harsh chemicals is starting to happen, but at much too slow a pace. The Circe team’s technology has the potential to speed up the transition to a future in which we work with Nature to produce what we need, rather than exploiting it," observed Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Wyss Institute’s Founding Director. Ingber also holds the titles of Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at HMS and Boston Children’s Hospital and Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Bioinspired Engineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

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