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Apr 26, 2022
By Mohan Iyer
Pyrone Systems: Making Petrochemicals Obsolete

Four founders, each with deep experience in related areas, came together to form Pyrone Systems, an unusual company with an unusual platform and go-to-market plan. 

Alex Hutagalung, a biochemist, had patented a novel process of converting fatty acids to polyketides. He leveraged this patent into a proprietary bioprocess to make triacetic acid lactone, or TAL,which has a plethora of medicinal, agricultural, and industrial applications. Making TAL cost effectively has been a goal for green chemistry, given that it is a precursor molecule for many other valuable compounds and bio-based chemicals on par with the dominance of petrochemical building blocks. 

Brian Conn had worked with Alex at a prior company where they were using a yeast fermentation process to produce the active ingredients in cannabis and they decided to partner up again at Pyrone. Brent Shanks, the third founder, had been working extensively on using TAL to make products using very simple chemistry. Brent introduced them to Steve Bessette, the fourth co-founder, a 30-year veteran of the insecticide industry who introduced plant-based oils to the market and serendipitously found pogostone (made in one-step from TAL) as the most potent insecticide he’d ever seen.

I posed a few questions to Alex Hutagalung, CEO of Pyrone Systems to help me unravel how these various aspects of the founders manifested in the evolution of the company:

CEO and co-founder Alex Hutagalung, PhD working from the IndieBio lab.

Alex, sort me out quickly: Are you an insecticide company or a green synthetic chemistry platform company? 

Ultimately, we are both. For the near-term, we will focus on introducing pogostone as a natural alternative to pyrethrin-based insecticides. Over time, as we scale, our mission is to evolve more fully into a unique green chemistry platform based on our singular ability to synthesize TAL and other biobased chemicals using a simple, cost-efficient process. We will make many other biobased chemicals like TAL, which will replace their respective petrochemical-derived versions in use today. But until we reach that point in our company’s scale and evolution, there is a clear and obvious answer for the best use of TAL today – it is the use as a precursor to make pogostone. The pricing potential and volumes required for a successful pogostone product are already within our reach. While TAL can be used to make many other downstream products with other industrial applications, these applications such as corrosion inhibitors or lubricants will require us to operate at volumes and scale that will take us a bit of time. In the meantime, using TAL to make pogostone and getting it approved by the EPA as a new insecticide will maximize the near-term opportunity, while also enabling us to move up the scale curve until the time is right to expand into our full potential as a chemistry platform company. 

What did you accomplish during the program?

Oh man, we got so much done! We literally had an idea on paper when we arrived. Now, we have a proprietary strain that uses fatty acids to make TAL in the unique way I had designed. We achieved proof of concept production of TAL. Further, we synthesized pogostone and have already begun testing it in 3 different locations in the US. We are also parallel tracking how to formulate pogostone into various kinds of final insecticidal products. Most importantly, we initiated talks with EPA and secured their blessing to apply for approval of pogostone as a bioinsecticide. So, we exceeded the main goals we had set for the program and more. Thinking beyond pogostone, we have also started building relationships with various ecosystem players on other uses of TAL (such as in lubricants) and already seeing keen interest in our approach. 

What’s your go-to-market for pogostone?

We plan to launch it as a bioinsecticide for public health pests such as mosquitos, ticks, cockroaches, and termites. We will partner with a professional household pest control market, which is surprisingly large at around $2B. We will market pogostone as an ingredient through the approximately dozen or so distributors that serve this marketplace, selling into end-users like Terminix and Rollins. We have already started discussions with several of these and they find our unique product profile and expected pricing quite attractive, filling a key gap they see for a natural yet effective biopesticide. 

The aftermath of early testing of the Pyrone biopesticide, pogostone, on resistant mosquitos at a University of Florida lab.

What’s next for Pyrone?

After we conclude the financing round in progress, we will focus hard on getting pogostone approved by the EPA, which will raise a barrier for others. During this time, we will optimize our production process for TAL, mostly non-dilutive money from a DOE grant we have already. We will continue to build the necessary business relationships, both with potential pogostone distributors as well as those interested in creating other products from TAL. We will synthesize and synergize the complementary talents of the cofounders to build the leading green chemistry company in this space. 

Hear how they outcompeted their peers for the most progress in one week in our Killer of the Week podcast: #1215 – A yeast that eats fat.