Fort Collins, Colorado
At University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University, Lim was a researcher with co-founder Garret Miyake, a chemistry professor at CSU.
Lim and Miyake, now New Iridium's CTO, are co-inventors of the photocatalysts at the center of the company.
"We found significant promise for this kind of technology to accelerate chemical manufacturing," says Lim. "Right now, we're targeting pharma to begin with."
Originally envisioned for manufacturing of high-performance plastics via atom transfer radical polymerization, or ATRP, New Iridium's proprietary photoredox catalysis technology harnesses the energy of light to accelerate a chemical reaction.
"If you look at how chemical manufacturing is traditionally done, it's by applying heat to activate a chemical reaction," says Li. "Instead of using heat, we apply light to activate a chemical reaction, just like photosynthesis."
Lim calls photocatalysis "a fundamentally different process" than competing technologies. "When you use light, you access different chemistry and more powerful chemistry. By doing that, you introduce chemical efficiency."
Co-founder and COO Brent Cutcliffe compares New Iridium's processes with the legacy: "With heat-driven chemistry, you apply heat and basically that shakes the molecules with kinetic energy and the bonds break apart . . . then they combine back together. When you're doing light-driven chemistry, you're accessing a completely different mechanism that operates at the level of manipulating the electrons from their orbitals."
Lim describes it as "cutting out steps" from entrenched chemical manufacturing processes. "Using a light-driven process, we take shortcuts," he says.
Cutcliffe says, "Cutting [manufacturing time] in half is a reasonable expectation. Not in every case, but generally speaking, there would be about a 50 percent reduction."
"The key invention that we have is the catalyst itself," says Lim. "What we are selling is the photocatalyst that kickstarts the whole thing."
After the initial focus on plastics, the company pivoted to the pharmaceutical industry. "This technology is really getting adopted in the pharmaceutical industry," says Lim. "Big pharma has active programs to apply this kind of technology to drug development and manufacturing."
"Pharma has demonstrated they are the primary early adopters of this technology," says Cutcliffe. "If you go back 10 years, everything was just academic. . . . Starting four or five years ago, it was bleeding over into industry, and pharma was the first industry to really pick it up and start working with it. You can imagine why: Pharma, they reinvest tremendous amounts of money back into R&D and they're always looking for the best tools for drug development and manufacturing. They spare no expense when it comes to making a new molecule."
Two products -- dihydrophenazine PC and NewIr PhenOx O-PC -- are currently commercially available exclusively through distributor MilliporeSigma, with a third in development with a Q3 2020 launch target.
Undisclosed customers are primarily using New Iridium's technology " mainly at the R&D level today," says Cutcliffe. "We are not aware of any industrial-scale implementation using our products." He says he expects a new drug will emerge from Phase III trials for manufacturing via New Iridium's platform "in the next few years."
The company currently manufactures in-house to supply customers with small quantities, but the long-term plan involves outsourcing of production to outside chemical manufacturers as production moves from "hundreds of grams" to "hundreds or thousands of kilos," says Lim.
To put that in perspective, Cutcliffe adds, "One kilogram of our product would make a ton of pharmaceutical products."
The company has cumulatively won about $2.5 million in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants.
Sales doubled from 2018 to 2019, and New Iridium continues to grow this year. "There was a pretty severe dropoff in Q2 due to COVID-19," says Cutcliffe, "but despite that dropoff, we're on pace to double again in 2020."
Challenges:"Customer adoption," says Cutcliffe. "Getting more pharmas using photocatalytic methods, and of course getting past that Phase III approval process with a drug that's using it."
That requires both buy-in "a fairly steep knowledge component" from customers, he adds.
"For any new technology, there's always a hurdle," adds Lim. "Long run, if this technology provides the cost savings and the time savings in general, the industry will switch over, just like from landlines to cellphones."
Opportunities: Cutcliffe points to a broad trend to reshore pharmaceutical manufacturing spurred by the pandemic. "We see ourselves playing in that space very heavily. Number one, we would be producing our own catalysts here in the United States, probably in Colorado, and I think that could spur drug companies to bring those drug processes home."
Another opportunity involves speeding up and improving production of Remdesivir, a candidate COVID-19 treatment. "As a startup, we tried to accelerate the timeline by working on Remdesivir," says Lim. "We are trying to apply our technology to Remdesivir to solve the bottleneck of production. . . . We want to push the limit of our technology into doing something that is meaningful and solving mankind's problems."
Beyond pharma, other future target markets include plastics, commodity chemicals, and fuels. "We want to push the limits of our technology," says Lim.
Needs: "Talent," says Lim. "We are looking to hire people in the next few months."
In the longer term, New Iridium will also need a larger space. The company currently leases 1,500 square feet from CSU and might be able to expand there before moving to an off-campus facility. "Step one would be to expand within CSU and step two would be to expand beyond CSU," says Cutcliffe.