How Cemvita Will Enable Future Astronauts To Survive On Mars
Tell us your background and about your startup
My name is Moji Karimi and I am the co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory. I run Cemvita Factory alongside my co-founder (and sister!) Dr Tara Karimi, who is the Chief Scientist and the brains behind the technology we’re working on.
We are a biotech startup in Houston, USA and our mission is to create a sustainable future on Earth while enabling human exploration to deep space.
For the space application side of our business, the big idea that we have is to use the 1kg/day of carbon dioxide that astronauts breathe out and the abundant CO2 in the Martian air as feedstock. This feedstock will produce nutrients that astronauts on Mars need to survive (glucose, vitamins, protein, etc.). This would enable regenerative life support and will be the ultimate in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) system.
How did the idea come about and what was it like getting started?
The brains behind all of this is my brilliant cofounder Dr. Tara Karimi. She is our Chief Scientist and an expert in nature-inspired technology.
It all started by thinking about mimicking photosynthesis and, if we could do that, figuring out what problems we could solve. As you know plants convert CO2 and water to glucose and oxygen but we, as humans, still don’t have a system to do the exact same. This is partly because sugar is cheap and widely available.
So, we started to explore the scenario where sugar as a calorie source would be expensive and scarce but needed. And that’s how the deep space applications came to mind. The first few months were hard since the idea was so out of the box and people weren’t comfortable with it. But, slowly, we gained more traction.
In some ways we first had the technology and then looked for the problem it could solve. It’s much easier if you start with the problem. That said, if you really believe in the technology and its potential, you have a good shot at finding the appropriate applications.
In our case, eventually the importance of the conversion of CO2 to glucose as the solution became so obvious that NASA introduced it as a Centennial Challenge with a $1M prize.
"Planning on taking food to space is very risky and astronomically expensive ($100k/kg to Mars at a minimum)."
Why is the problem you are solving important?
We fundamentally solve the food problem for deep space exploration and survival on Mars.
Planning on taking food to space is very risky and astronomically expensive ($100k/kg to Mars at a minimum). Most items have limited shelf-life of a few years. Growing plants in space is also a good option but has many challenges.
We believe the optimal solution is a mix of all but cannot only rely on taking the food with us. We need to learn to live off the land and utilize the in-situ resources.
All the attention currently is on getting to Mars, but we ask, how are we going to survive there? So the biggest risk to deep space human exploration isn’t the reliability of the rockets anymore. It’s the human factor; survival in such harsh environment; and that’s the area we are focused on.
What are some achievements you're proud of?
We have successfully converted CO2 to glucose in our lab. It took a year from starting the company to refine the market application and find a sponsor for the project and only three months to perform the conversion in our lab. The rest from here is just scaling up the system.
Another milestone of course is to test our technology on the International Space Station to study the effects of microgravity.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced? How did you overcome them?
The main issue is to be able to find a market application for your technology on earth. That’s the most common advice to all space startups. Space is great but to sustain your business you can’t only rely on space. It’s a small and niche market and not mature when it comes to non-rocket and non-satellite use cases.
For us, that application is to use CO2 as a feedstock for bio-manufacturing of chemicals and polymers in the energy industry. As you know rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere is a huge problem and a big liability for energy companies. With our platform, they can convert this liability into value.
What are your next steps?
The next phase of developing our technology, as mentioned, is to fly our system to the ISS and carry out tests in that environment.
We are also currently fundraising for our seed round to be able to establish and expand our terrestrial/Earth-based applications. So, you should expect to hear a lot more about us in the next year!
What is your vision for humanity in space long-term?
To have humans live and work in space and not be limited to one planet. Exploration and survival are in our DNA and, since we have already run out of new areas on Earth, the next logical step is outer space.
For that to happen we need to work on what it takes to survive in outer space. It’s the non-sexy part of space technology - no flames as a rocket launches - but it’s necessary.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
Going back to my earlier comment, I’d say as you keep your eye on a space problem, make sure you identify a robust application on Earth so you can sustain your company. This seems counter-intuitive but it’s necessary.
Another observation is that what investors call early stage is entirely different to what entrepreneurs consider early stage. If you are thinking about starting a company, try to get to as much market validation as you can by spending as little as possible. This will help extend your runway and allow for pivots as you try to fine tune your model and get customer traction. Only then will you be ready for seed stage investors.
"Make sure you identify a robust application on Earth so you can sustain your company."
What’s the best way for the public to support you in your mission?
The best way to support us is to learn more about what we do via our website and stay engaged as we grow. There will be more news on our fundraising there as well as ways you can help out by promoting the cause.
We are also expanding our team and always looking for talent! See the jobs we're hiring for and get in touch.
For those interested, they can also learn more about the science behind what we do with my co-founder Tara’s Springer book.
Where can people find out more about you and follow along?
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