On the shores of Lake Michigan, just 31 minutes north of Chicago, researchers in a Northwestern University laboratory have been quietly cooking up what could be the next great revolution in chemistry.
For over a century, oil and chemical companies have used tremendous amounts of energy to convert the black gold that powered the 20th century to make the fuel and chemicals that define modern life.
Now, that process is at the heart of a range of problems linked to rising rates of heart and lung disease, cancer, an increasing frequency of biological born contaminants to our food supply and human health, and skyrocketing costs of living due to the increasing complexity of getting at the black gold that built the 20th century.
Addressing these challenges is at the heart of the work Chad Mirkin and his fellow researchers conducted at Northwestern. Now they're spinning out that technology with $15 million in funding.
Originally called Stoicheia, taken from chemistry's practice of stoichiometry and the Greek philosopher Plato's stoiecheion (which means a letter, a shape, or a piece of matter), Mirkin's company has a new name and a new chief executive as it looks to take chemistry into the age of sustainability.
Under the leadership of Jeff Erhardt, a longtime executive with stints at G.E. and as the CEO of Wise.io,, Stoicheia is now Mattiq (a reflection of its insights into new ways to make materials) and is actively looking to partner with chemistry companies to green the industry.
There are now new processes that replace fossil fuels with electricity to make materials like steel, but Mattiq's team believes that the same processes can be applied to make other kinds of materials. And these materials can transform the process of chemical and fuel production.
Chemical reactions rely on catalysts -- and Mattiq has come up with a way to test novel material catalysts which can interact with molecules and biological inputs that are different from fossil fuels.
Right now the company's focused on finding new, less-expensive catalysts to make Hydrogen from water and methanol from carbon dioxide (instead of methane gas); jet fuel from biomass (instead of crude oil); and hydrogen peroxide from water (instead of crude oil derivatives).
Transforming these processes promises to reduce their costs and shift their input from the fossil fuels that humans need to stop burning.
“From the stone age to the silicon era, materials discovery has been slow, unpredictable, and constrained by the performance of available materials,” said Mattiq Founder and Director Chad Mirkin, in a statement. “Mattiq is disrupting this status quo, resulting in discoveries that enable new technologies at a pace not previously imaginable.”
Mattiq hopes to do for chemistry what companies like Genentech and Ginkgo Bioworks have done for genetic engineering -- create new pathways for innovation that can be spun up into products and companies by large businesses in the traditional chemicals sector.
"Think of us as being the inorganic version of Gingko," said Erhardt.
And the company is using the same principles that these genetic engineering pioneers have used in their own work, according to the company's new chief executive, Erhardt.
“Solutions to the materials bottleneck must meet skyrocketing demand while also reducing the ‘green premium’ so that climate technologies can be scaled in commercially viable ways,” said Erhardt in a statement. “Mattiq’s discoveries will make possible technologies that today can only be imagined; it is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I’m thrilled to be joining this incredible team.”
Mattiq's researchers use what amount to nano-molecular pens that drop tiny amounts of metal "ink" onto microchips. That allows researchers to know exactly where the metal is on the chip and then -- when a current of electricity its passed through the chip -- the researchers can see how the metals respond.
It's the same process that would happen on a big industrial machine, or in a testing lab, but, since it's on a chip, thousands of experiments on metals can be done in parallel to see what catalytic precursor metals would respond appropriately when charged.
"We’ve created an ability to do characterization at the nano level and system level to get an idea of how they would perform," Erhardt said.
"People are thinking of it like genomics on a chip or organs on a chip."
In Mattiq's case, it's chemicals -- and by 2024, the company said it will have synthesized and analyzed more than 1 trillion novel material combinations within the context of real-world industrial systems -- only at a size approaching the quantum level.
To achieve this ambitious goal, Mattiq has raised roughly $15 million from investors led by the investment fund Material Impact.
“At Material Impact, we seek startups with the potential to transform industries through category-creating deep technologies," said founder and new Mattiq board member, Carmichael Roberts. "With momentum in the energy transition constrained by the availability and performance of fundamental materials, Mattiq’s unique approach presents an opportunity of immeasurable value in the clean economy.”