It is estimated that only 1-2% of chemists ever venture onto the road less travelled—launching a chemistry start-up (Knauer, 2021). The reason likely lies in the significant commitment and sacrifice associated with starting a new venture. How would you know if your technology is potentially commercially viable? And how do you successfully make the leap from academia to entrepreneur? We recently interviewed the Co-Founder and CTO of AIR COMPANY, Dr. Stafford Sheehan, to learn more about his technology (conversion of CO2 to chemicals and fuels), and shine a light on the entrepreneurial process.
“It’s very hard to take a technology to commercial scale. You have to have a lot of resilience and stick with it when things are challenging,” says Dr. Sheehan. “But there has never been a better time.”
Dr. Sheehan’s own journey began at Yale University where he completed his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry with Charlie Schmuttenmaer. Schumuttenmaer and his colleagues Gary Brudvig, Bob Crabtree, and Victor Batista were the founding members of the Yale Solar Group—a research group dedicated to the development and understanding of the fundamental science of photocatalysts for the conversion of solar energy to fuels. Dr. Sheehan later went on to start Catalytic Innovations, LLC with co-founders Paul Anastas and Aaron Bloomfield, which landed him on the Forbes 30-under-30 list in the Energy category.
Becoming an entrepreneur—Dr. Sheehan tells us—requires a new mindset. “Learning how to think about your research in the context of the ‘real world’ is really helped by having a mentor with the same mindset,” comments Sheehan, referring to his mentor Paul Anastas—the green chemistry pioneer, Yale professor, and serial entrepreneur.
In 2017, Dr. Sheehan founded AIR COMPANY along with Co-founder and CEO, Gregory Constantine. They met through a chance encounter and have built a company with the mission of creating viable solutions to aid in the transition away from fossil fuels by using the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) to make carbon-negative alcohols and fuels. The first product in their portfolio is AIR Vodka, which contains ethanol produced by their proprietary CO2 hydrogenation process. Since entering the market with a spirit, they have found alternative ways to valorize ethanol into sanitizer and fragrance, and are exploring other potential products. However, the company’s primary objective on its path towards world-scale is to leverage their unique approach to hydrogenating CO2 to create a Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), distributed under the name AIRMADETM SAF.
AIR COMPANY’s AIRMADETM technology utilizes industrial CO2 effluent and “green” hydrogen made on-site with renewable energy in a continuous catalytic process that uses a patented earth-abundant metal catalyst to generate fuel-grade hydrocarbons and water (Sheehan, 2022). An in-line infrared spectrometer provides real-time monitoring so that the reaction can be adjusted for the suppression of carbon monoxide. To date, the company has raised $40 million to develop their technology, and recently landed on C&EN’s 10 Start-Ups to Watch list.
Dr. Sheehan’s advice for prospective entrepreneurs is to take advantage of the growing number of innovation accelerators and entrepreneurial fellowships now available (for examples, see activate.org). These opportunities can provide crucial support as you develop your technology and pursue your dream. “Apply for all those opportunities,” says Dr. Sheehan, and do not be afraid to seek mentorship from academics who have launched startups.