Research Highlights: From Grad School to GlycoSurf

contributed by Cliff Coss

Over the years, I have been asked to write about every angle and facet of my startup company, GlycoSurf. I’ve written articles describing my involvement in the University of Arizona’s business development entity, Tech Launch Arizona, and my business development resources and lab space at our local incubator, Arizona Center for Innovation. I’ve had interviews from news stations and magazines about my technology and products, and have spoken about the entrepreneurial chemist-turned-businessman transition that is inevitable in these circumstances. But what’s interesting is how rarely I get asked to discuss the actual science; the part of the company I spent night and day on to optimize and “green” in order to make the company in the first place! Most discussions involve dollar signs, not environmental betterment. While this is not surprising to members of the business sector, I find myself taken aback by the fact that even the most moral- and passion-driven sustainable venture must survive financially in order to make a difference in the environment. So when Anna (one of our NESSE execs) asked me to discuss what really led to the formation and existence of GlycoSurf, I took advantage of the opportunity to ignore the dollar signs for a second and reminisce about the times when GlycoSurf was an idea and I was just trying to create a green material using green methodologies.

As I think back to those late nights in graduate school, it occurs to me that they were really the easy days of this long journey. Slaving away in hoods, over oil baths, round bottom flasks, rotovaps, microwaves, and coupling sugars to lipids never meant to be a company. It was originally just research for a degree. As encouraged here in NESSE, anyone can introduce green chemicals and practices in their research. By focusing on one change at a time, I was able to systematically green my research and my laboratory habits. It also helped that I was involved in an interdisciplinary project with the goal of synthesizing natural and bio-inspired glycolipid surfactants in a cost-effective, scalable, and environmentally-friendly fashion. It was during the early stages of this project that I became aware of the individual impact that my colleagues and I were making on the environment every day in lab. The fact that I contributed to the problem every time I showed up to work bothered me so much that I almost turned in the lab coat for a profession that didn’t make me feel guilty.

However, I chose to make some changes rather than throw in the towel. I eliminated dangerous procedures, harmful reagents, utilized catalysts, recycled solvents and reagents, and did it all while minimizing synthetic steps, eliminating work-ups, increasing yields, and lowering costs. While this was all a personal accomplishment that taught me alternative approaches to the “tried and true” practices of Organic Chemistry, this was all achieved at a scale that was easily handled and controlled.

What I discovered upon applying for a patent for our process and unique glycolipid surfactants was that optimization of large-scale production is no walk in the park. Never underestimate the statement made by the baker when she argued that the recipe for a dozen brownies cannot simple be multiplied by ten to produce ten dozen brownies. It becomes even worse when you are trying to scale and optimize a green process. This frustration can easily lead to the temptation to revert back to dangerous reagents and solvents in order to ease production becomes great as your company tries desperately to stay afloat. This hesitation to give in and except the procedures and techniques can only be described as the “dark side” of chemistry. Take it from someone that’s been through it. However, the easy route rarely gives you satisfaction or the feeling of absolute achievement; besides the fact that it goes against everything GlycoSurf stands for.

So, I pushed on in grad school, I pushed on through the early stages of GlycoSurf, and I continue to green procedures as GlycoSurf works to better the world one reaction and one glycolipid at a time. I’ve been working with these materials and these processes for nearly eight years now and it never gets easier. However, none of us got into this because we wanted something easy, right? It’s the challenge that drives us all to achieve something novel and impacting that keeps us focused. The key is to find the passion for what you are doing and the passion to make it better, no matter how difficult it may be. The next generation of scientists has arrived and it is up to us all replace the outdated practices and mindsets in order to convert green science into everyday science in academia, industry, and life.

GlycoSurf is a start-up producing high-purity, high-performance glycolipids for use in personal care products. It was founded in 2013 by three University of Arizona researchers. Find out more about GlycoSurf at www.glycosurf.com.

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