Get to know the good scientists engineering enzymes to clean up your shampoo.
The Curie Co team is replacing banned chemicals in consumer products with safe and sustainable ingredients.
With Curie Co, the entrepreneur designs alternatives to compounds like parabens that have fallen out of favor with retailers. Erika Milczek founded Curie Co in 2017. The firm engineers biodegradable enzymes to replace some of the more controversial types of chemicals, such as preservatives — like parabens — that Amazon, Target, Walmart, and other large retailers are barring from certain consumer products. Milczek explains, “Using Curie Co’s proprietary enzyme-engineering platform, we take enzymes that exist in nature and give them the properties that we want to mimic the work of chemicals.”
Learn more about the entrepreneurial researchers leading the charge in Tennessee’s science- and tech-based innovation.
What’s your elevator pitch (in layperson’s terms)?
Curie Co is a synthetic biology company that’s creating solutions to replace petrochemicals with sustainably derived ingredients that improve product shelf life.
For too long, clean ingredients have come at a premium. But now, Curie Co is making sustainable ingredients that can be used in your favorite mass-market products. This means companies can make the same products, with the same effects, at the same price point.
What problem/pain point are you solving?
Most of the products we use every day, from shampoo to lotion to makeup, contain chemicals that are banned or soon-to-be banned by regulators and major retailers around the world. Right now, the chemicals going down our drains are devastating wildlife and have a negative impact on global human health. Curie Co is aiming to replace these chemicals with sustainable proteins that won’t inflate price points.
What inspired the creation of Curie Co?
We are committed to improving human health and all agree that we should start by making safer ingredients that are used in products that we interact with daily. Our team is composed of scientists from the pharmaceutical industry and biotech, who had a conviction in the vision, bringing this expertise to solve a major problem.
What’s your company’s secret sauce?
We are experts in enzyme engineering. It’s a very young field. In fact, the field is so new that the scientists that developed enzyme engineering technology won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2018.
What role did receiving SBIR/STTR federal funding play in your company’s commercialization?
This funding was critical to de-risking the technology when the company was in its early stages.
Curie Co’s trajectory to commercialization is an example of LaunchTN’s commitment to empowering entrepreneurs. Curie Co received an award from LaunchTN’s SBIR/STTR Matching Fund in 2019, after winning a Phase I SBIR award from the National Science Foundation earlier that year. Through a competitive awards-based program, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program provides federal funding for small businesses exploring their technological potential and helps to accelerate the commercialization process.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give another company applying for SBIR/STTR funding?
Listen to your customers and really understand the market. A good scientist will always be able to create great technology. The key is creating technology that solves your customers’ pain point so you can make their lives easier.
How did receiving an award from LaunchTN’s SBIR/STTR Matching Fund help move your company forward?
This funding allowed us to hire a new team member and purchase a crucial piece of equipment we needed in our work. These together have allowed us to advance our technology.
Why is the SBIR/STTR Matching Fund important to the state of Tennessee?
It is difficult to find investors in any state for a technology-based company. However, there are far more deep tech investors in the Bay Area and Boston than in the Southeast. Matching funds are critical to fostering the life science companies in Tennessee for early-stage ventures.
What’s an example of a hurdle or roadblock that you’ve had to overcome?
Navigating the Covid-19 related global pandemic was a big challenge, particularly because we were close to securing funds for our Series A when the pandemic hit full force in the US. Making sure our team members were safe was priority. Keeping them engaged, and showing progress while working from home, was no small task and then being able to successfully transition back to lab work in Q3 2020. The pandemic meant that we had to basically start from scratch on our fundraising. We stayed the course and were able to find a way forward.
What’s your company’s biggest accomplishment so far?
We are a technology company first, and to that regard it has been to develop our initial enzyme products that have provided not only a proof of concept, but also a promise of market potential in many new applications. We have been able to successfully build a patent portfolio. On a business side, being able to close our Series A financing was a big accomplishment because it provided the much needed capital for our early stage company to continue to develop and commercialize our innovative technology and products.
Do you have a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) for Curie Co?
Our goal is to democratize sustainability. We want to make clean, sustainable ingredients that anyone can afford to buy at a drugstore or supermarket.
Date founded: 2017
Location: Chattanooga, TN and New York, NY
Number of employees: 5
Connect with Curie Co
“As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying.”
Arthur C. Clarke