Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s podcast series, “Fixing the Future.”
That’s the first time you’ve heard me say that.
The most honest and inadvertently funny marketing message I ever saw was at a gas station that was closed for remodeling; it had been an Amaco station before that company was bought by BP. The sign said, “Rebranding, to serve you better.”
I’m afraid we’re a bit guilty of that here at Spectrum. We’ve changed the name of this show to “Fixing the Future” partly for marketing and searchability reasons. But it also signals our intention to focus more intently on ways that technology is being deployed to improve our lives, specifically in three—to be sure overlapping—areas: climate change; machine learning and other smart technologies; and the effects of automation on the nature of work and the future of jobs.
I’m hard-pressed to imagine a more on-point guest to help me usher in this change than Myriam Sbeiti. She’s the CEO and co-founder of Sunthetics, a startup that’s reinventing the industrial processes by which we make nylon by replacing a thermal operation with an electrical one, and has both grown that business and pivoted toward other industrial processes as well.
Myriam, welcome to the podcast.
Myriam Sbeiti Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Steven Cherry Miriam, seatbelts, climbing ropes, dental floss, are made of nylon, clothing, of course, but also luggage and automotive body parts. I had no idea how pervasive nylon is, nor how energy-intensive and more to the point, carbon-intensive its manufacturing is. Maybe we could start there.
Myriam Sbeiti Yeah, absolutely. Just like you said, nylon is quite literally everywhere. I think one of my favorites, too, is it’s in cable ties, which is just such a specific example that you can find everywhere in construction and medical devices. And but we designed nylon specifically to essentially last forever, which is a problem in itself, because that also leads to a lot of pollution. And one of the main reasons why the fashion industry is such a big polluter, but also its manufacturing takes a lot of energy to make just because it’s such a stellar material. It takes a lot of steps and it takes a lot of energy to get the molecules to come together in that particular way. But that’s essentially kind of one of the main reasons why nylon is one of the most energy-intensive fibers.
Steven Cherry So your original idea was to replace the thermal part of the process with an electrical one. How does that lower the carbon footprint of the nylon?
Myriam Sbeiti One of the many steps in the development of nylon is also one of the most energy-intensive and pretty toxic stuff as well, where you turn one molecule that we call acrylonitrile into another one called ADN for adiponitrile. And essentially in that step, you can use heat and really high temperatures in order to make that molecule change. So now we’re using really high temperatures. You’re also using pretty toxic chemicals like hydrogen cyanide, and we make about three million tons of that just in the U.S.
And so another way that we can actually make that same molecule rather than using heat and temperature to make that transformation happen, we can use electrons from electricity. And that’s already a much more safe process just because you don’t have to use high heat or high pressures in order to make it happen; it’s a lot more benign. And it also replaces the use of more toxic chemicals like hydrogen cyanide by essentially making that transformation happen, just purely using those electrons. Overall it also uses less energy just to make that happen. And putting all of that together, you can actually reduce the carbon footprint by at least 30 percent.
Steven Cherry So that seems like such a big and straightforward idea. Why was it not done before Sunthetics?
Myriam Sbeiti So we are not making that process up. This is something that was developed back in the 1950s by Monsanto. And there is one company that used an electrical version of that process. The issue is that it is not the most cost-efficient. So the thermal one is a lot more cost-effective than the electrical process, which means that most companies are going to actually use the thermal version just because the cost aspect is so much more important to those companies and the sustainability aspect. So what we did at Sunthetics was we tried to include as many innovative types of materials and processes in order to improve the efficiencies of that process and therefore improve its cost-effectiveness. And so we’ve used a combination of things. But one of the central pieces of how we’ve been able to come to this better process was through a machine learning tool that essentially could predict where the highest performance might be based on a couple of different factors.
Steven Cherry So you reduce the amount of energy needed. I gather you’ve also cut the amount of raw material that goes into the process and the amount of waste that comes.
Myriam Sbeiti Yeah, so essentially when you look at a process and we talk about kind of yield and efficiency, we’re talking about how much of that raw material that we put in goes into becoming your product. And so essentially there’s two things at play here, which is the first, how much of your raw material actually converts versus doesn’t convert. And the second thing is how much of the converted raw material converts into the specific product that you’re looking for versus byproducts, which can be waste. And so by fine tuning these little things, using our machine learning algorithm, we were able to get more of that raw material converted into the product that we actually want. And so that means reducing the amount of byproducts, and that also means reducing the amount of waste because we’re able to use more of that raw material to go straight into that product.
Steven Cherry And the net result is your process is now more cost-effective.
Myriam Sbeiti Overall, I would say it’s actually comparable to the previous thermal process of. That one is still one of the most cost-effective that exists. It’s more cost-effective than the electrical processes that have existed in the past, and particularly just because this market is more or less a duopoly. So there’s really two big players there. It’s enabling the fact that it’s more cost-effective and benign and easier to handle. It enables more of the downstream players to actually start making that themselves rather than then require other suppliers to get that for them. So it’s actually enabling companies to have a little bit more control over their supply. That being said, although it was a really good process to work with, we ended up not pursuing that specific path for a couple of different reasons.
Steven Cherry Yeah, we’re going to get to that.
We’ll be back to hear more about greener manufacturing, moving from nylon and also her own remarkable personal story with my guest, Myriam Sbeiti.
Fixing the Future is supported by COMSOL, the makers of COMSOL Multiphysics simulation software. Companies like the Manufacturing Technology Centre are revolutionizing the designs of additive manufactured parts by first building simulation apps from COMSOL models, allowing them to share their analyses with different teams and explore new manufacturing opportunities with their own customers. Learn more about simulation apps and find this and other case studies at comsol.com/blog/apps.
Myriam Sbeiti [laughs] We used COMSOL, it’s a huge timesaver.
Steven Cherry That’s very cool.
We’re back with Myriam Sbeiti, co-founder of Sunthetics, a startup that began by lowering the carbon footprint of nylon and has moved on to other industries.
Myriam, Netflix started with DVDs, but they always wanted to be a company that delivered movies over the Internet. Hence the name. Your company’s name is a take on the word “synthetics” that adds the word “sun” to it. Your goal was always to make the industrial process even greener by getting the electricity directly from solar or wind generation. But that proved harder than you thought. And in the meantime, you were also looking at—and being looked at—by other industries and helping them prove maybe easier than you thought. Let’s start with the hard part: directly using renewable energy sources. What’s the big problem there?
Myriam Sbeiti Using electrical processes, one of the advantages is that you can directly integrate with renewables and bypass transmission. So essentially hook up renewable energies directly into your process, which significantly lowers the energy costs attributed with renewables. That being said, with a chemical company, you do need to operate your facility 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to be economically viable. But with renewables like solar or wind, those are not necessarily available 24/7. And so the other aspect that you can work with is potentially looking at energy storage. The issue there, though, is that energy storage is so much more expensive than it is just to get regular electricity that’s nonrenewable that it ends up not being viable for these companies and is one of the reasons why solar—integrating solar energy directly into our process—was something that we decided to leave for potentially later when better technologies are invented.
Steven Cherry Yeah, or we have a much more renewable grid itself. In the meantime, as I said, you were being looked at and looking at other industries. One of those companies from another industry was the Heritage Group. What was their interest in Sunthetics?
Myriam Sbeiti The Heritage Group owns a couple of different chemical companies and essentially what we realized on our end ... So I’ll give you a little bit of context. They’re essentially ... Kind of like Netflix, our main goal and our main motivation mission has always been to make the chemical industry more sustainable. And looking at nylon was a really great way for us to realize how the technology that we had developed in-house could be used not just for nylon, but for many other processes across the board, and essentially have a much larger impact by enabling so many different companies to improve their processes or to develop better processes by using our tools.
And so a main one, there was an AI tool that enabled us to develop a better process in a fraction of the time than it would usually take. And so with the Heritage Group—and they make a lot of specialty chemicals—that whole process of making specialty chemicals can take quite some time, and especially coming with new, innovative, more sustainable types of processes like ones that use electrical processes can be particularly time-consuming when you don’t have the expertise in-house. And so the interest there was being able to use our technology to accelerate that timeline and potentially open up some new avenues and new processes that are more sustainable than what they currently have by leveraging our tool.
Steven Cherry And I gather that a really potentially sweet spot for Sunthetics is the pharmaceutical sector. And you’ve begun talking with companies that you can’t name. Tell us what their interest is.
Myriam Sbeiti Yeah. So with the pharmaceutical industry, what’s really helpful is that they are constantly looking for new types of molecules and new types of processes. And because the types of products that they make are such high value but also low volume, it enables us to actually work with them at the very early stages of our product development. And so there’s a lot to be said there for the pharmaceutical timeline. We’ve seen it with the Covid vaccine. We’ve seen it with any kind of medication that’s being developed. And so anything we can do to accelerate that timeline is highly valuable. So we really found a sweet spot there for an industry that is looking to develop better processes, but also has a time crunch aspect that really kind of propels this kind of technology forward.
Steven Cherry And so I previously compared you to Netflix in a way, but really a comparison might be better made to something like Amazon or Slack—in each case, Amazon Web Services and the Slack communications tool, which were in-house tools built for the company’s own purposes. This A.I. tool was built just to help you with the industry that you started with, but that’s now become your main project.
Myriam Sbeiti Yeah, exactly. With the nylon process, we were looking at a very specific problem which had its own set of implementation challenges, whereas with this product we have a much more open market and one that we can get to with a much lower barrier to implementation because of the simplicity of what it is. It’s a modeling tool that enables you to understand your process very quickly. And because of the fact that it doesn’t require any additional equipment or any additional work or training on the company side, it’s something that we can get to companies a lot faster, but also has a much larger impact. And so it’s been a really great pivot for us to actually get to that type of impact we’re looking for in the chemical industry and bring that sustainable innovation to the chemical industry while being able to do so in the short term rather than a longer-term project.
Steven Cherry I haven’t disclosed yet the indirect connection between us. I teach at NYU’s Engineering School and Sunthetics got its start in the classrooms of a professor of chemical and biological engineering at NYU, Miguel Modestino. You and your co-founder were students of his?
Myriam Sbeiti Yeah, exactly. So he was a professor. I actually don’t think I ever had him in class, but I did work in his research lab where I did my thesis and my co-founder was actually doing her Ph.D. thesis in his lab.
Steven Cherry The connection is even a bit deeper. I teach a journalism course that focuses on sustainability. And just about every semester a student writes about Sunthetics. One of them even interned there, Sifat bin Quadery. I like to think that my questions are always insightful, but this time around I had a lot of help. I went back and looked at their articles.
Myriam, it’s a bit remarkable that you’re already mentoring NYU students. You only graduated in 2018 yourself. You grew up in France, you speak four languages, and you were valedictorian of your class. That academic success and even the startup itself might not have been possible without an NYU benefactor.
Myriam Sbeiti Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Essentially, you know, I grew up in France, came from a pretty low-income household, and came to NYU on a scholarship. But that scholarship didn’t fully cover room and board and everything. And so one of the things that enabled me so I actually had three jobs coming into NYU my first two years just to keep up and be able to pay for some of those expenses. But what enabled me in the last two years that I was in college to actually focus on something else than side jobs and actually be able to write a thesis—and do some extracurricular work and actually, in the end, start Sunthetics—was a benefactor and alumnus.
His name is Charlie Hinkaty. And he just has been such a great mentor, such a great person that I’ve been able to go to and also has enabled me to actually spend some time on advancing what I was interested in in the chemical industry and sustainability. He actually ended up also investing in our company and synthetics and enabling us to further our vision, both my vision in school, but our vision as a company as well.
Steven Cherry And this was a pay-it-forward thing for Charlie; as I understand it, he himself may not or might not have graduated if he didn’t get some help from an earlier benefactor.
Myriam Sbeiti Yeah, I believe that’s true.
Steven Cherry There’s a video on YouTube all about that, and we’ll link to it in the transcript.
Well, Miriam, I think it’s a remarkable story that’s one that’s still very much a work in progress. To switch metaphors. If we as a nation and as a planet are to meet our climate change goals and save the world, that’s going to be in large part through this kind of work. Every industry, every company going through its processes, looking for ways to improve its carbon footprint. Thanks for starting synthetics and being part of that. And thanks for joining us today.
Myriam Sbeiti It’s my pleasure. I think what people don’t realize, those chemicals are at the heart of literally everything we use on a daily basis, all the products around you. So the more innovation we get there, the more we can reach our goals.
Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Miriam Sbeiti, CEO of Sunthetics, which is using machine learning to bring greener processes to manufacturing.
Fixing the Future is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity.
This interview was recorded June 15, 2021 using Zoom and Adobe Audition. Our theme music is by Chad Crouch.
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For IEEE Spectrum’s Fixing the Future, I’m Steven Cherry.
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