Can chemistry be green? “Absolutely,” says Sonja Jost, who set up DexLeChem on precisely this premise at the start of 2013. Green or sustainable chemistry seeks to avoid environmental pollution, to save energy, and to produce in as environmentally friendly way as possible while avoiding risks in the production process and in the products themselves. Sonja Jost, who studied Industrial Engineering and Management at Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin), discovered a process for manufacturing medicine which enables petroleum-based substances to be replaced by water. She acquired the basic know-how in the Chair of Technical Chemistry before getting the opportunity to develop chiral catalysis as an environmentally friendly and cost-effective process in 2006 when working in the UniCat Cluster of Excellence under her supervisor Professor Dr. Reinhard Schomäcker.
“The idea for the start-up came from the research results I generated at Technische Universität Berlin,” says Jost. It was in 2007 that she first succeeded in deploying industrial chiral precious metals in water and reusing them unmodified. A revolution. Because up until this point the chemical industry had only been able to use these catalysts in organic petroleum-based solvents. Additionally it had only been possible earlier to recycle individual catalytic elements and then with great difficulty, which led to an increase in costs.
It would still be some years however until DexLeChem came into being. It was also thanks to the University and the support it provides its entrepreneurs, her supervisor Professor Schomäcker and her mentor Professor Peter Strasser (from the Institute of Chemistry) that she did not give up. “They inspired me to keep going,” says Jost.
A complicating factor was that spin-offs in the natural sciences have a harder time than digital startups due to the fact that the chemistry labs which aspiring entrepreneurs like Sonja Jost need to develop their ideas are not freely accessible. The analysis equipment required is also very expensive and not affordable for university graduates. This made the connection to TU Berlin all the more important in the early phases of the startup´s development
A pre-startup center for green chemistry with labs, offices and conference rooms, such as the “Chemical Invention Factory” being set up on the Marchstraße campus, was a distant dream back then. Sonja Jost also campaigned tirelessly for the Chemical Invention Factory. She knows from her own experience just how important support for natural science start-ups is.
Sonja Jost was greatly helped by the Federal Ministry of Economy´s “EXIST Transfer of Research” program, which provides substantial funding for high-tech startups. The program supports outstanding research-based startup plans for complex and groundbreaking developments. The funding enabled her to develop her process for the commercial market. At the start of 2013, Sonja Just was able to set up her business with three other entrepreneurs.
“The early days were often very hard,” she recalls. Green chemistry was still in its infancy, its moral aspirations were very high and it was not possible to do business with companies who had no interest in sustainability. But she did manage to gain the attention of the pharmaceutical industry. In 2014, Bayer Pharma made DexLeChem its strategic partner for its Berlin-based “CoLaborator” research incubator for new bio-tech startups. Since then, Sonja Jost´s labs and offices have been located at Bayer´s premises in Wedding, surrounded by other young life sciences businesses.
Five years after establishing her start-up, she looks back on what has been a spectacular process. She holds two US patents, employs 10 staff, and has received a number of awards, including from EditionF, Handelsblatt and ZEIT online as well as the Sceince4Life startup initiative. Using her business model, she has managed to firmly establish herself in her branch. “We use our methods to support the transition towards a sustainable circular economy for the chemistry industry,” she says.
Despite her success, she still maintains an interest in developing young talent. For example, DexLeChem is a partner of the UniCat Cluster of Excellence and a cooperation partner of the Institute of Chemistry´s InkuLab, whose teams are supported by the Centre for Entrepreneurship (CfE). InkuLab provides labs where budding entrepreneurs are advised and coached and can benefit from the advantages of an expansive business network including potential funders. This provides Sonja Jost with the chance to provide young entrepreneurs starting out on their careers with the kind of support she received from TU Berlin in the early stages of her own journey.