Game Changer – “Everything we’ll need to make new stuff is CO2 and renewable energy”

Dr. Rayan Guterman and Dr. Arren Bar-Even in a lab
Dr. Ryan Guterman and Dr. Arren Bar-Even from Greenshift Labs at the lab

Greenshift Labs has not yet a product on the market, but two very dedicated scientists who develop solutions towards a sustainable economy. We met with the founders Dr. Arren Bar-Even and Dr. Ryan Guterman and talked with them about oversaturated markets, new ways of producing commodities and how to become independent from agriculture.

What are you doing in your academic life?

*Bar-Even: I’m a biochemist at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology . I was born and raised in Israel. My motivation is to study the design principle of cellular metabolism and try to harness it in order to tackle humanity’s biggest challenges in sustainable production of chemicals, fuels and food. In our lab we do a lot of metabolic engineering work, focusing mainly on microbes but also collaborating with other labs who work with plants.

Guterman: I’m a group leader at Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. I was born and raised in Torontoand got my education in Canada. I came to Germany in 2015. I would describe my expertise as a combination of synthetic chemistry and material science. What we strive to do is investigate fundamental chemistry to discover substances and new bonding that has yet to be found and connect their function to technology. Some of the things we develop in the Max Planck Institute are components in batteries to improve cyclability or components for electrodes in water splitting, among others.

Together you founded Greenshift Labs. The products are quite different, from cosmetics to food supplement. How did the idea grow in the first place?

*Bar-Even: It is very different from what we do in our everyday working lives.

The idea for Greenshifts Labs did not originate from either of us. It was from good friends and collaborators of mine that came up with the idea of trying to develop food supplements or natural based wellness products, which integrate most known plant extracts and components with Cannabinoides, mainly CBD. Since I had some experience with that from my past, I found this idea quite interesting. To get to a solid product we needed to master both the biological and chemical aspects. Therefore I had to find experts in various aspects of the production and for developing. One of those people was Ryan Guterman. He has the skills we need in order to get the chemical part right, in terms of formulation, structure and so on.

What do you do at Greenshift Labs, what are your roles?

Guterman: Arren is a Microbiologist, he understands how living things work and I’m a chemist, I know how to make things. As advisors in this company we can provide direction in terms of how to develop the product and defining the main characteristics and considerations we must focus on.

Most scientists usually search for deeper truths, not for ways to develop products for markets. How do you come up with ideas for new products?

Guterman: I think it’s a misconception that all scientists only think about a deeper truth. They think about a lot of other things, too. I would say it is rather the obsession of a scientist that usually prevents them from getting things to the market, the obsession to understand more.

*Bar-Even: We are already more inclined than most scientists to think about how to get to market and how our technology can serve a good cause. Though the company itself wasn’t our idea, all ideas for products came from our discussions, from the scientific side. We communicate these ideas to our collaborators in Israel who are concerned with the business side of things who then take the more practical next steps.

Guterman: Chemistry is the only science with an industry named after it. If you’re a chemist like I am, you’re forever bound to the idea that your research must in some way have an impact beyond your small community.

Food supplements are everywhere. How do you find your niche and when will you launch the first product?

*Bar-Even: It’s indeed a very oversaturated market. We have the rigorous scientific approach that most other products on the market are missing. They are mostly based on outdated knowledge, flimsy science or only weak evidence, focusing on only one or two ingredients that try to do something. On the other hand, we work with substantial evidence and state-of-the-art knowledge on how to positively affect our body’s biochemical processes. Also, so far you get these products mostly as capsules. We also try to innovate and establish new ways of consumption as well. Right now we’re working on the exact formulation and essential product features like taste and smell.

You speak of running  a „boutique lab“, what is that about?

*Bar-Even: It’s a term some Israel friends with a marketing perspective came up with. It suits us quite well, because you get a certain value with a dedicated line of products in a rather small amount and very high quality. That’s why we try to focus on a very limited product range and try to offer something you cannot get elsewhere.

Guterman: The question is if you want a commodity product or a tailored product? Do you want the type of coffee your grandma drank or the one you can get in a boutique coffee shop with special flavours?

What part do other team members play in your organization?

*Even-Bar: They play an essential role, because the scientific part is at least as important as the non-scientific part.

Guterman: As scientists we are guided by questions and try to find answers to them. But to be fully able to actualize on the discovery, we need people in our team with other backgrounds like marketing. That is as much an art as doing the science itself. The important thing is that we are all similarly passionate about what we do.

You two have been working together for a long time in your academic lives. What do you work on?

*Bar-Even: What I work towards in my academic life is a sustainable production chain and economy. We try to develop technology to use only CO2 and renewable energy as a feedstock for the production of basically all the commodities we have around – or at least the commodities which depend on carbon.

We try to promote the idea that we need to combine abiotic chemical processes with biotic biochemical processes to get the best solutions in terms of efficiency and environmental impact. CO2 can be activated using renewable energy very effectively in a non-biological manner to produce small energized molecules like formic acid. And then a microorganism can be engineered to take this energized molecule, grow on them and produce stuff that we need for our everyday life. Through this conceptual framework my lab is working together with Ryan’s lab even before we founded the company. This solution will not be developed soon, but hopefully in the future this is how we will make everything instead of starting from fossil carbon.

Guterman: The main challenge for me here is to convert CO2 into those useful molecules. This is actually a very big step that hasn’t been fully figured out yet, although there is a race towards valuable targets. The engineering approach to this: let’s see what is out there and find which combinations work until we get what we want. But engineers rely on things that exist already. The chemistry perspective; the research I am concerned with, is to start from a deeper, more fundamental place and to create these new substances. Only then can we actualize the direction Arren mentioned.

What could this mean concretely for production in general?

*Bar-Even: Let’s talk about food, because this is something we actively research. If you grow bacteria or yeast on energized compounds that come from CO2, you can then extract proteins from them that can serve directly as food or animal feed. This can be an answer to the question of how we can feed the world population because we cannot increase the amount of land used for agriculture with regard to loss of biodiversity. So we can create nutritional components with the help of microbes instead of relying on agriculture. We already have sausages for example that are made of microbial proteins, but we’re still in the early days. And this is not something we invented, because NASA was researching that in the 60s already, but today our capabilities are not as constrained as they were back then.

What advice can you give young founders?

*Bar-Even: I’ve been in and out of industry and academy. My advice is to find the right people, that is in my view 90% of the success. Especially because there will be tough times and troubles, and if you don’t have a good team you might not survive these phases of insecurity.

Guterman: Coming from an entrepreneurial family I learned early to not be afraid of failure. And I think that’s very important because only then you take responsibility and take a leadership role.

*Dr. Arren Bar-Even passed away suddenly. His death is a great loss for the Science Park.