Beyond Benign

Chemists Invent Green

Myriam Sbeiti and Daniela Blanco
B.S. in Chemical Engineering, NYU, M.S. in Chemical Engineering, NYU
Sunthetics

The curious case of Myriam and Daniela

This is the story of Myriam Sbeiti and Daniela Blanco, the Co-Founders of Sunthetics. Although these two spend a lot of time together, working with each other, and building their own company, their stories are very different. For Myriam, the science path seemed something very natural to pursue. At school, she was good at math and physics; it was easy for her and it made sense. During her studies, Myriam learned about energy, and how it is everywhere around us. The problem is, however, harnessing it. “That sounded like a not yet problem, something that can be done, we just don’t know how to do this yet.” This was the first time Myriam became interested and curious about energy. In the 5th grade, she took a test to figure out what was the best job for her, going against the first result of the test (which said Myriam should be an actress), she went for the second result and later applied to pursue her Chemical Engineering major at the New York University. During her undergraduate studies, Myriam started to work with the professor Miguel Modestino, harnessing renewable energies and building electrochemical devices.

Daniela, however, found Myriam following a completely different path. Daniela grew up in Venezuela, and as a kid, she loved medicine and wanted to be a doctor. However, during a high school internship, Daniela discovered she could not stand the sight of blood! So, she moved on and started to think about the alternatives. “My few favorite subjects were biology and chemistry, and I really liked solving problems.” Therefore, Daniela decided to go for Chemical Engineering: “Venezuela completely depends on the oil industry, and it was always my dream to graduate and become part of that industry.” However, right before graduating, Daniela started to acknowledge that sustainability was not a priority of the industry of her dreams. “I wanted to do something different, I wanted to change that.” This is the reason why Daniela continued her research path and decided to pursue her Ph.D. She heard about professor Modestino’s projects of renewable energy at New York University and went for it! In the Modestino Research Group, Myriam and Daniela’s paths crossed.

Electrifying the chemical industry, one reaction at a time.

At New York University, Daniela started to work on a project to make an intermediate for Nylon, called adiponitrile, in a more sustainable way. “What we want to do is change the way chemical processes work. The chemical industry uses heat, which comes from burning fossil fuels and that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. We wanted to change that energy source from heat to electricity, and in that way, integrate renewable energy in a cost-efficient way. This can bring further improvements on energy efficiency in the system.”

While Daniela was getting some exciting results from her Ph.D. project, Myriam was graduating. However, Myriam did not like what the industry had to offer; she wanted to make more of an impact. This is the part of the story when Myriam and Daniela decided to join forces and entered their first start-up competition. “Our idea was to figure out if the technology we were developing as a part of my Ph.D. had a commercial application”. Myriam and Daniela won the competition and received enough money to finance Myriam’s full-time job in the company. Sunthetics was born!

Well, you might be thinking right now: Why is the Sunthetics team working with Nylon intermediates and not any other chemical or chemical process known? Myriam explains that “there is a specific need in the Nylon industry, both for sustainability and for changes in the supply chain. There are a lot of issues when it comes to supply shortages, production interruption, and price tags.” However, this is just the beginning for Sunthetics, as the company’s main idea is to “electrify the chemical industry”. Daniela highlights that Nylon is only their starting point: “What we really want to do is use this concept and the core of this technology to develop similar processes for other chemical reactions.”

Curiosity for success

When asked about the important traits to achieve success, Myriam and Daniela stressed the necessity of being curious and understanding things. “We really like to understand where things are coming from. From a scientific point of view, that really helps in understanding why things happen and how we can change them to make them happen in a different way. On a business side, when we are trying to build contacts and relationships, it’s the same idea. Why does a person act in a certain way? Why are they interested in this technology versus another technology? When you understand why, it’s a lot easier to act on it.”

Daniela also highlights the importance of trusting your instincts, without being overconfident. “We always have in mind that there’s probably something we don’t know yet. There’s always something we can improve, something we can learn further on. We push each other to keep understanding and keep planning more.”

The challenges and pleasures of thinking and inventing green

The path to achieve sustainability is not easy, and Myriam and Daniela have had to overcome new challenges every day. “We got a lot of push back from people saying we were cute, nice, but we were not getting anywhere talking about sustainability.” However, the Sunthetics team did not give up and worked to improve their concept. “We come from a generation of people that are getting more and more aware of the problems with fossil fuels, the problems with emissions, and how it’s affecting us and how it’s going to affect us in the very near future.”

The most exciting part of inventing green at Sunthetics, according to Daniela, is the possibility of always trying something new and the ability to decide what they will do next: “It’s incredibly exciting to know you are not limited by a company or someone you need to make happy. This is our company, our start-up, we know where we want to go, and we decide what is the next step.” Myriam also emphasizes the excitement to deal not just with science, but also with people throughout the process. This reminds them of their purpose. “It’s exciting to be able to apply some of the scientific tools that we have to understand and deal with people.”

Myriam and Daniela discussed how Green Chemistry is going to be something obvious in the process of producing and implementing new technologies in the future. “A big part of the energy we use in the United States goes to industrial needs. The majority of that is making chemical products. That makes sense, because when you look around you, everything is made out of chemicals. Green Chemistry is going to play such a strong role in the sustainable future, just because chemistry is at the base of so much of the issues, so much of the energy, so much of the emissions. For us, it’s just really obvious that Green Chemistry is going to be a huge player.”

The Sunthetics team believes their work affects society and the way Chemical Engineering is driven. “We want to be one of the first generations that is trying to make sure that Chemical Engineering is not just about efficiency and cost. It’s also about the sustainability value. We want new chemical engineers to know that they can be part of this as well.”

"Our goal is to use Sunthetics as a platform to make the entire chemical industry greener, but doing it one reaction at a time."

-Myriam Sbeiti and Daniela Blanco

Curiosity

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