Meet the Texas startup that wants to decarbonize the chemical industry

Solugen, a startup that has set itself up with no less lofty a goal than the decarbonization of a massive chunk of the petrochemical industry, may be the first legitimate multi-million dollar company to start out in a meth lab.

When company co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt began hunting for a lab to test their process for enzymatically manufacturing hydrogen peroxide they only had a small $10,000 grant from MIT — which was supposed to pay their salaries and cover rent and lab equipment. 

Chakrabarti, who now jokingly calls himself “the Heisenberg of hydrogen peroxide” says that the lab spaces they looked at initially were all too pricey, so through a friend of a friend of a friend, he and Hunt wound up leasing lab space in a facility by the Houston airport for $150 per month.

It was there among the burners and round-bottomed flasks that Hunt and Chakrabarti refined their manufacturing process — using fermentation based on Solugen’s proprietary enzyme made from genetically modified yeast cells to produce hydrogen peroxide. 

“In 2016 I went to visit Solugen’s headquarters in Houston, They were subleasing a small part of a bigger lab and it was one of the sketchiest labs I’d seen, but the Solugen founders liked it because the rent was low” recalls Solugen seed investor, Seth Bannon, a founding partner with the investment firm Fifty Years. “Sean and Gaurab were incredibly impressive. They had their prototype reactor up and running and were already selling 100% of its capacity, so we invested.”

Creating a process that can make thousands of tons of chemicals — without relying on petroleum — would be a hugely important step in the fight against global climate change. And Solugen says it has done exactly that — while getting the chemical industry to subsidize its development.

The chemicals industry is responsible for 10% of global energy consumption and 30% of industrial energy demand, while also contributing 20% of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions, according to the website Global Efficiency Intelligence.

As the world begins to confront the effects of global climate change, curbing emissions from industry will be critically important to ensuring that the world is not irrevocably and catastrophically changed by human activity.

As columnist Ramez Naam wrote in TechCrunch:

Our hardest climate problems – the ones that are both large and lack obvious solutions – are agriculture (and deforestation – its major side effect) and industry. Together these are 45% of global carbon emissions. And solutions are scarce.

Agriculture and land use account for 24% of all human emissions. That’s nearly as much as electricity, and twice as much all the world’s passenger cars combined.

Industry – steel, cement, and manufacturing – account for 21% of human emissions – one and a half times as much as all the world’s cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes combined.

Greenhouse gas emissions are only one of the dangers associated with the petrochemical industry’s approach to production. The processes by which chemicals are made are also incredibly volatile, and the work is dangerous for both employees and the communities in which these plants operate.

Last week, a chemical plant explosion has led to one of the worst fires in the city’s history. Firefighters in the city spent six days trying to contain a chemical fire that has burned 11 storage tanks managed by Intercontinental Terminals Company.

“They’re moving chemicals exposed to the environment, and those chemicals are not designed to be transported in that way,” Francisco Sanchez, the county’s deputy emergency emergency management coordinator told The Houston Chronicle

Man in protective workwear with Caution cordon tape (Courtesy Getty Images)

By contrast, Solugen’s process is only a little more dangerous than brewing beer.

In the years since Bannon came to visit the company in its first lab, Solugen has built a working production plant capable of making enough hydrogen peroxide to bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the company.

In addition to its current mobile manufacturing facility, a skid mounted 1,000 square foot mini plant, Solugen is using $13.5 million in new financing from investors to build a new, 2,500 modular facility which will produce 5,000 tons of hydrogen peroxide per year. 

That new money came from the investment fund Founders Fund (co-founded by the controversial libertarian investor, Peter Thiel), Fifty Years, and Y Combinator.

Solugen’s secret sauce is its ability to create oxidase enzymes cheaply that can be combined with simple sugars to make oxidation chemicals — which account for roughly half of the $4.3 trillion dollar global chemical industry.

The companies bioreactors have been specifically designed for the chemicals it makes, but the real innovation is looking at enzymes as a tool for oxidation chemistries.

Companies are now able to engineer these enzymes thanks to advances on computational biology and the newfound ability of biochemists to engineer DNA, Chakrabarti says.

Solugen uses CRISPR gene editing technologies to modify yeast cells. It has identified a certain transcription factor which acts like an accelerant to producing the enzyme that Solugen’s process requires. Messenger ribonucleic acid overwhelms most of the typical processes if a celll to force the cell to dedicate most of its function toward enzyme production. The company then uses a contract research organization to cheaply make the enzyme at scale.

Companies also have driven down the cost of manufacturing these specialty enzymes. “The revolution is the commoditization of biomanufacturing specifically enzyme production,” he says. “Instead of our enzymes costing $1,000 per kg… It’s $1 to $10 per kg.”

Once Solugen proves that the new facility can work, the only issue is scaling, according to Chakrabarti. “We use enzyme technologies to create chemical mini-mills [and] each mini-mill can do 5,000 tons of products,” says Chakrabarti.

A typical chemical [lant has a production capacity of 50,000 tons, but the Solugen process is orders of magnitude more inexpensive, says Chakrabarti. That allows the company to build out a network of smaller plants profitably. “These are huge industries where we can make cheaper products,”he says.

And for every ton of product that Solugen makes and sells, it’s the equivalent of removing six tons of carbon from the atmosphere, Chakrabarti says.

Oil and gas companies have already signed contracts and are ordering the company’s products to the tune of several million in sales.

“It’s a nice way of funding us and funding the oil and gas industry’s demise,” says Chakrabarti of the company’s sales to its initial customers, “They give us money and allow us to go after other chemistries that would have been petroleum based… Our ultimate goal is to wipe them out.”

 

Starbucks will anchor the new $400 million food-focused Valor Siren Ventures fund

Starbucks is serving up a steaming hot $100 million cash commitment to anchor a new food-focused fund in partnership with the consumer and tech-focused focused private equity firm Valor Equity Partners.

The behemoth of burnt-coffee said that its commitment to the Valor Siren Ventures fund is an attempt to focus on “new ideas and technologies that are relevant to customers, inspiring to partners (employees), and meaningful to Starbucks business.”

The Starbucks announcement was short on details, except for a general statement that it would focus on investments in companies developing technologies, products and solutions related to food or retail.

As a company, Starbucks has been incredibly innovative — rolling out new tech-enabled services to customers. The company has one of the most popular mobile payment services, is dabbling with cryptocurrency payments, and has a robust on-demand delivery service through UberEats.

Meanwhile, Valor has a long history of investing in both technology and consumer food businesses. Thee firm as investments in companies that run the gamut from SpaceX, Tesla, and Addepar to food services companies and restaurant chains like WowBao, Fooda, and Eatsa.

With its commitment Starbucks joins a growing number of food and beverage companies that are embracing venture capital. Kelloggs, Tyson Foods, General Mills all have affiliated venture funds and even Chipotle is starting an accelerator program.

“We believe that innovative ideas are fuel for the future, and we continue to build on this heritage inside our company across beverage, experiential retail, and our digital flywheel,” said Kevin Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Starbucks, in a statement. “At the same time, and with an eye toward accelerating our innovation agenda, we are inspired by, and want to support the creative, entrepreneurial businesses of tomorrow with whom we may explore commercial relationships down the road. This new partnership with Valor presents exciting opportunities, not only for these startups, but also for Starbucks, as we build an enduring company for decades to come.”

Serena Williams joins Bumble’s investment fund as an investor

Serena Williams, the global sports and fashion icon and investor, is doubling down on her relationship with the dating app Bumble with today’s announcement that she will serve as an investor in its Bumble Fund. 

Launched in 2018, the Bumble Fund backs early-stage businesses founded and led by women of color and underrepresented groups. The fund’s commitments range between $5,000 and $250,000 with an average check size of $25,000.

“In my life, and today more than ever, I’ve learned how impactful one woman’s voice can be when given a platform to speak and be heard,” said Serena Williams, in a statement. 

Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, has been investing in women and minority-owned businesses through Serena Ventures since 2014. She also serves on the boards of the tech companies Poshmark and SurveyMonkey. 

She began her relationship with Bumble in January, culminating with a starring role in the company’s most recent Super Bowl commercial earlier this year and will be leading the Bumble Fund pitch competition next month, along with Bumble founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd.

That competition launches today on Bumble Bizz and is open to U.S.-based entrepreneurs who identify as women, with a priority given to founders from diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Companies have until March 27, 2019 to submit.

“When we launched our #InHerCourt campaign with Serena Williams this past January, we were amazed by the overwhelming response we received from women globally who felt empowered by our message,” Wolfe Herd said in a statement. “In teaming up with Serena for the Bumble Fund, we want women everywhere to know that we are here, we are listening and we believe in you.”

Through Serena Ventures, Williams already has invested in over thirty companies while the Bumble Fund has made nine investments to date. Recent deal include investments in the business advisory service, Alice; the workout and training app, Gixo; diversity and inclusion training toolkit provider, Translator and the probation and parole support service, Promise.

“I am passionate about building on this progress and opening doors for women of all backgrounds, especially women of color, to share their message and trust in their potential to accomplish great things,” Williams said in a statement. “By joining forces with the Bumble Fund, we will continue amplifying female entrepreneurs and creating a place for them to personally and professionally champion their growth.”

The World Health Organization is setting up rules and oversight for human gene editing

Yesterday, the World Health Organization wrapped up its first meeting of a new advisory committee set up to create global governance and oversight standards for human gene editing.

The committee was hastily pulled together in December after the revelation last year that a Chinese scientist had genetically modified two embryos using CRISPR technology to remove the CCR5 gene, which plays a critical role in enabling many forms of HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) to infect cells.

As soon as the Shenzhen-based geneticist He Jiankui made his results public, his work was met with universal condemnation — both inside and outside of China,

He was last seen under house arrest in a compound on the university grounds where he conducted his research as China moved retroactively to declare his work illegal.

Now the World Health Organization is taking its first steps to regulate the use of the technology.

“Gene editing holds incredible promise for health, but it also poses some risks, both ethically and medically,” said says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. in a statement.

For the past two days the WHO’s committee of experts hashed out a few first steps for governing research around human gene editing, including a baseline agreement that working on any cliniaxal applications would be irresponsible.

The committee also called on WHO to create a central registry for all of the research being conducted on editing the human genome, to create a database of all ongoing work.

“The committee will develop essential tools and guidance for all those working on this new technology to ensure maximum benefit and minimal risk to human health,” said Dr Soumya Swamanathan, WHO Chief Scientist, in a statement.

Launching from YC, Eclipse Foods casts a long shadow over the $336 billion dairy industry

Eclipse Foods may be the company that finally takes milk out of the dairy business.

Ever since the acquisition of WhiteWave Foods by the French dairy giant Danone for over $10 billion investors have been thirsting for a technology that would give consumers a better tasting, more milky (for lack of a better word), milk substitute than the highly valuable (but not very tasty) almond, soy, and other plant based dairy alternatives.

There are at least $37.5 billion worth of other reasons for investors’ interest in the milk alternative category. That’s how much money will be spent on dairy alternatives by 2025, according to a newly released study by the market research firm Global Market Insights.

Enter Eclipse Foods. Founded by two veterans of the alternative sugars and proteins business, the company is going after the whole dairy industry, starting with a line of spreads and select additives for restaurants around San Francisco.

“We had an oh shit moment when we got our plant based milk to act just like the real thing,” says Thomas Beaumon, Eclipse Foods co-founder and the former director of product development at Hampton Creek (now known as Just Foods). “We’re not pureeing nuts or seeds or legumes. We asked, ‘What are the properties of milk?’ and built this dairy base of the exact amino acids and fat profile.”

Thomas Beaumon in the kitchen (Courtesy Eclipse Foods)

Joining Beaumon on the journey to create the perfect milk substitute is Aylon Steinhart, a former specialist working with the Y Combinator aligned food technology incubator and think tank, the Good Food Institute.

The two men met at the launch event for Just Egg, the fourth product to debut from Just after the release of the company’s mayonnaise alternative, cookie dough, and porridge.

“We started talking about ideas and landed on this dairy platform,” recalls Steinhart. “It’s a place where we can make a big change very fast given the technological breakthroughs that we solved for early on.”

The demand is certainly coming on strong. According to Steinhart about 80% of millennials are consuming dairy replacements at least once a week.

Aylon Steinhart (Courtesy Eclipse Foods)

Humans didn’t start out drinking milk. Over the 300,000 odd years that some form of homo sapien has been stalking the planet, it has only been in the past 10,000 odd years that people decided to squirt the liquid out of a cow’s udders to consume it.

At first, humans couldn’t even consume the stuff without getting at least a little nauseous. They needed to develop a genetic mutation to even process the lactose sugars properly.

“The first time that we see the lactase persistence allele in Europe arising is around 5,000 years BP [before present] in southern Europe, and then it starts to kick in in central Europe around 3,000 years ago,” assistant professor Laure Ségurel of the Museum of Humankind in Paris, told the BBC earlier this year.

Segurel speculates that the health benefits of consuming milk might have been related to the exposure (and potential inoculation) to various diseases that may have otherwise spread from the animals to the humans that were raising them.

If that was the rationale, it’s increasingly unnecessary for modern living, and may indeed be more of a hazard to human health.

Global meat and dairy producers could count among the largest contributors to climate change if their growth remains unchecked, according to a report from the non-profit Grain.

They estimate that meat and dairy consumption should be reduced by 81 percent in order to meet global emissions reduction targets.

 

With the production of Eclipse’s dairy alternative, there’s no animal required.

“We have an off-the-shelf platform right now. The only additive will be water,” says Beaumon.

And unlike other alternative dairy products, Beaumon and Steinhart claim that theirs actually tastes good. And, as a Michelin starred chef, Beaumon should know.

The company’s first line of products will be a line of cream cheeses, including one for the bagel-and-schmear loving crowd. However, the majority will be more millennial focused, according to Steinhart.

“There will be various unique flavors that are culinarily focused,” he said.

Expect the first products to debut in an exclusive pilot with Wise Sons and through the ice cream maker Humphry Slochombe, a leader in high end ice cream in SF.

However companies decide to label their Eclipse-based products, they certainly shouldn’t call them vegan, according to Beaumon.

“Vegan cheese is gross,” he says.

Targeting payday lenders, Branch adds pay-on-demand features for hourly workers

Branch, the scheduling and pay management app for hourly workers, has added a new pay-on-demand service called Pay, which is now available to anyone who downloads the Branch app.

It’s an attempt to provide a fee-based alternative to payday lending, where borrowers charge exorbitant rates to lenders on short-term loans or cash advances. Borrowers can often wind up paying anywhere from 200 percent to more than 3,000 percent on short-term payday loans.

The Pay service, which was previously only available to select users from a waitlist at companies like Dunkin’, Taco Bell and Target (which are Branch customers), is now available to anyone in the United States and gives anyone the opportunity to get paid for the hours they have worked in a given pay period.

Branch, which began its corporate life as Branch Messenger, started as a scheduling and shift management tool for large retailers, restaurants and other businesses with hourly workers. When the company added a wage-tracking service, it began to get a deeper insight into the financially precarious lives of its users, according to chief executive, Atif Siddiqi.

“We thought, if we can give them a portion of their paycheck in advance it would be a big advantage with their productivity,” Siddiqi says. 

The company is working with Plaid, the fintech unicorn that debuted five years ago at the TechCrunch Disrupt New York Hackathon, and Cross River Bank, the stealthy financial services provider backstopping almost every major fintech player in America.

“Opening Pay and instant access to earnings to all Branch users continues our mission of creating tools that empower the hourly employee and allow their work lives to meet the demands of their personal lives,” said Siddiqi, in a statement. “Our initial users have embraced this feature, and we look forward to offering Pay to all of our organic users to better engage employees and scale staffing more efficiently.”

Beta users of the Pay service have already averaged roughly 5.5 transactions per month and more than 20 percent higher shift coverage rates compared to non-users, according to the company. Pay isn’t a lending service, technically. It offers a free pay-within-two-days option for users to receive earned but uncollected wages before a scheduled payday.

For users, there’s no integration with a back-end payroll system. Anyone who wants to use Pay just needs to download the Branch app and enter their employer, debit card or payroll card, and bank account (if a user has one). Through its integration with Plaid, Branch has access to almost all U.S. banks and credit unions.

“A lot of these employees at some of these enterprises are unbanked so they get paid on a payroll card,” Siddiqi said. “It’s been a big differentiation for us in the market allowing us to give unbanked users access to the wages that they earn.”

Users on the app can instantly get a $150 cash advance and up to $500 per pay period, according to the company. The Pay service also comes with a wage tracker so employees can forecast their earnings based on their schedule and current wages, a shift-scheduling tool to pick up additional shifts and an overdraft security feature to hold off on repayment withdrawals if it would cause users to overdraw their accounts.

Branch doesn’t charge anything for users who are willing to wait two days to receive their cash, and charges $1.99 for instant deposits.

Siddiqi views the service as a loss leader to get users onto the Branch app and ultimately more enterprise customers onto its scheduling and payment management SaaS platform.

“The way we generate revenue is through our other modules. It’s very sticky… and our other modules complement this concept of Pay,” Siddiqi says. “By combining scheduling and pay we’re providing high rates of shift coverage… now people want to pick up undesirable shifts because they can get paid instantly for those shifts.”

Fifty years of the internet

When my team of graduate students and I sent the first message over the internet on a warm Los Angeles evening in October, 1969, little did we suspect that we were at the start of a worldwide revolution. After we typed the first two letters from our computer room at UCLA, namely, “Lo” for “Login,” the network crashed.

Hence, the first Internet message was “Lo” as in “Lo and behold” – inadvertently, we had delivered a message that was succinct, powerful, and prophetic.

The ARPANET, as it was called back then, was designed by government, industry and academia so scientists and academics could access each other’s computing resources and trade large research files, saving time, money and travel costs. ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, (now called “DARPA”) awarded a contract to scientists at the private firm Bolt Beranek and Newman to implement a router, or Interface Message Processor; UCLA was chosen to be the first node in this fledgling network.

By December, 1969, there were only four nodes – UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, the University of California-Santa Barbara and the University of Utah. The network grew exponentially from its earliest days, with the number of connected host computers reaching 100 by 1977, 100,000 by 1989, a million by the early 1990’s, and a billion by 2012; it now serves more than half the planet’s population.

Along the way, we found ourselves constantly surprised by unanticipated applications that suddenly appeared and gained huge adoption across the Internet; this was the case with email, the World Wide Web, peer-to-peer file sharing, user generated content, Napster, YouTube, Instagram, social networking, etc.

It sounds utopian, but in those early days, we enjoyed a wonderful culture of openness, collaboration, sharing, trust and ethics. That’s how the Internet was conceived and nurtured.  I knew everyone on the ARPANET in those early days, and we were all well-behaved. In fact, that adherence to “netiquette” persisted for the first two decades of the Internet.

Today, almost no one would say that the internet was unequivocally wonderful, open, collaborative, trustworthy or ethical. How did a medium created for sharing data and information turn into such a mixed blessing of questionable information? How did we go from collaboration to competition, from consensus to dissention, from a reliable digital resource to an amplifier of questionable information?

The decline began in the early 1990s when spam first appeared at the same time there was an intensifying drive to monetize the Internet as it reached deeply into the world of the consumer. This enabled many aspects of the dark side to emerge (fraud, invasion of privacy, fake news, denial of service, etc.).

It also changed the nature of internet technical progress and innovations as risk aversion began to stifle the earlier culture of “moon shots”. We are currently still suffering from those shifts. The internet was designed to promote decentralized information, democracy and consensus based upon shared values and factual information. In this it has disappointed to fully achieve the aspirations of its founding fathers.

As the private sector gained more influence, their policies and goals began to dominate the nature of the Internet.  Commercial policies gained influence, companies could charge for domain registration, and credit card encryption opened the door for e-commerce. Private firms like AOL, CompuServe and Earthlink would soon charge monthly fees for access, turning the service from a public good into a private enterprise.

This monetization of the internet has changed it flavor. On the one hand, it has led to valuable services of great value. Here one can list pervasive search engines, access to extensive information repositories, consumer aids, entertainment, education, connectivity among humans, etc.  On the other hand, it has led to excess and control in a number of domains.

Among these one can identify restricted access by corporations and governments, limited progress in technology deployment when the economic incentives are not aligned with (possibly short term) corporate interests, excessive use of social media for many forms of influence, etc.

If we ask what we could have done to mitigate some of these problems, one can easily name two.  First, we should have provided strong file authentication – the ability to guarantee that the file that I receive is an unaltered copy of the file I requested. Second, we should have provided strong user authentication – the ability for a user to prove that he/she is whom they claim to be.

Had we done so, we should have turned off these capabilities in the early days (when false files were not being dispatched and when users were not falsifying their identities). However, as the dark side began to emerge, we could have then gradually turned on these protections to counteract the abuses at a level to match the extent of the abuse. Since we did not provide an easy way to provide these capabilities from the start, we suffer from the fact that it is problematic to do so for today’s vast legacy system we call the Internet.

A silhouette of a hacker with a black hat in a suit enters a hallway with walls textured with blue internet of things icons 3D illustration cybersecurity concept

Having come these 50 years since its birth, how is the Internet likely to evolve over the next 50? What will it look like?

That’s a foggy crystal ball. But we can foresee that it is fast on its way to becoming “invisible” (as I predicted 50 years ago) in the sense that it will and should disappear into the infrastructure.

It should be as simple and convenient to use as is electricity; electricity is straightforwardly available via a trivially simple interface by plugging it into the wall; you don’t know or care how it gets there or where it comes from, but it delivers its services on demand.

Sadly, the internet is far more complicated to access than that. When I walk into a room, the room should know I’m there and it should provide to me the services and applications that match my profile, privileges and preferences.  I should be able to interact with the system using the usual human communication methods of speech, gestures, haptics, etc.

We are rapidly moving into such a future as the Internet of Things pervades our environmental infrastructure with logic, memory, processors, cameras, microphones, speakers, displays, holograms, sensors. Such an invisible infrastructure coupled with intelligent software agents imbedded in the internet will seamlessly deliver such services. In a word, the internet will essentially be a pervasive global nervous system.

That is what I judge will be the likely essence of the future infrastructure. However, as I said above, the applications and services are extremely hard to predict as they come out of the blue as sudden, unanticipated, explosive surprises!  Indeed, we have created a global system for frequently shocking us with surprises – what an interesting world that could be!

Nala has built a hassle-free, offline mobile money payment platform for Africa

Benjamin Fernandes, the Tanzanian co-founder chief executive of Nala, spent hundreds of hours talking to local Tanzanians about their frustrations with mobile money payment services before he launched his new payment platform.

While at least a hundred million Africans hold mobile money accounts, the process of transacting over the services is difficult, so Tala made an application that acts as an interface on top of the unstructured supplementary service data layer to make money transfers and payments much easier.

Mobile payment services have swept across the African continent in the 12 years since the wireless carrier Safaricom launched M-Pesa in 2007. As of 2017, roughly half of the 282 mobile money services operating worldwide were in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a McKinsey report. Nala’s founder estimates that there around 420 million Africans holding mobile money accounts, making the continent the leader in mobile money adoption by a wide margin. 

In Tanzania, making one send money payment requires a user to enter somewhere between 39-46 digits, a hard enough task for anyone, let alone someone who may be newly adjusting to mobile phone service.

Using Nala, users can make payments to anyone on any device, and it only requires a one-time download to start transacting, according to the company.

Think of Nala has taken all of the short codes from all of the transaction providers and created a router system that users can operate without having to memorize the different underlying coding. Currently live in Tanzania, with over 100,000 users, Fernandes says that his company has plans to expand to at least two other African countries over the course of 2019.

It’s been a long road for Fernandes, a former national television host of youth talk shows and sports shows in Tanzania, to financial services entrepreneur.

Fernandes moved to the U.S. for university, doing his undergrad degree at the evangelical Christian University of Northwestern in St. Paul. At the university, Fernandes developed an interest in economics and excelled. Encouraged by his business professor to apply to Harvard and Stanford for business school, Fernandes briefly returned home and did just that.

He received a full ride to Stanford through the school’s Africa MBA Fellowship in 2014 and moved back to America.

“I took the two years at Stanford to learn everything i can about fintech,” Fernandes recalled. “In the summer i started working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and that’s where i met Sam Castle. He was a PhD student at Washington doing research in mobile payments in MENA and Sub Saharan Africa.

Castle and Fernandes stayed in touch while the Tanzanian wrapped up his studies at Stanford, and when Fernandes graduated and received the Frances and Arjay Miller Prize for Social Entrepreneurship along with its attendant $20,000 bounty, he returned home and started working on Nala.

“It was such a hard decision to make to go home,” Fernandes recalls. “Most Africans don’t go home. We stay in the States. But I was 24 at the time and thought ‘We’ll figure this out.'”

As he began working on different prototypes and as the work progressed, he was able to convince Castle to come on board.

Now the company is generating some revenue from airtime sales and bill payments, although down the road Fernandes sees value in the data that the company collects across the multiple accounts that Nala services.

Eventually there’s a possibility for the company to get into other financial services like lending and savings.

What’s clear is the massive opportunity that exists in simplifying a transaction mechanism that’s wildly popular across the continent but also massively tricky for consumers to use.

Mobile payments have already revolutionized financial transactions in Africa, by building a simpler interface, Nala could take that revolution one step further.

XGenomes is bringing DNA sequencing to the masses

As healthcare moves toward genetically tailored treatments, one of the biggest hurdles to truly personalized medicine is the lack of fast, low-cost genetic testing.

And few people are more familiar with the problems of today’s genetic diagnostics tools than Kalim Mir, the 52-year-old founder of XGenomes, who has spent his entire professional career studying the human genome.

Ultimately genomics is going to be the foundation for healthcare,” says Mir. “For that we need to move toward a sequencing of populations.” And population-scale gene sequencing is something that current techniques are unable to achieve. 

“If we’re talking about population scale sequencing with millions of people we just don’t have the throughput,” Mir says.

That’s why he started XGenomes, which is presenting as part of the latest batch of Y Combinator companies next week.

A visiting scientist in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics, Mir worked with the famed Harvard professor George Church on a new kind of gene sequencing technology that promised to conduct sequencing at higher speeds and far lower costs than anything that was on the market.

The costs of sequencing a genome have come down significantly in the 19 years since the Human Genome Project successfully completed its project for $1 billion.

These days, gene sequencing can take a couple of days and cost around $1,000, Mir says. But with XGenomes, Mir hopes to drive the cost of testing down even further.

“We developed a way where we’re sequencing directly on the DNA where we’re not manipulating it except for opening up the double helix,” says Mir. 

Running a startup focused on conducting gene sequencing at population scales is not where Mir thought he’d be when he was growing up in Yorkshire in Northern England. “When I was in school there, I was not into science or tech. I was interested in literature,” he recalls.

That changed when he read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and began thinking about the implications of genetic manipulation that the book presented.

Mir went on to study molecular biology at Queen Mary College and upon graduation worked in a biotech company in the U.S.

After returning to England to complete his doctorate in the mid-90s, Mir worked with the geneticist Edwin Southern on the foundational science that now form the core of testing technologies like 23andMe, Illumina, and Affymetrix.

Xgenomes technology works by unzipping strands of DNA and then sequencing the strands concurrently.

I like to think of the genome as a book. The genome has chapters and the chapters could be the chromosomes,” says Mir. “Current technologies read it letter by letter. [But] we’re recognizing words.”

The company is able to accomplish this feat by using optical imaging technologies. Samples are treated with reagents that are then excited by lasers. XGenomes tech then “reads” the bits of DNA that are highlighted and identifies them.

Using this new tech, Mir thinks he can ultimately sequence a full genome in one to two hours and for as little as $100.

That would be a sea change in the way that testing is conducted and could bring about the rapid throughput of sequencing that Mir says is needed to make the vision of truly personalized medicine a reality.