Team:UC San Diego/Entrepreneurship


A Legacy Based on Besearch and Business

Our team has never wanted to do science in a vacuum. Since day one, our goal has been to leave a tangible impact on our community, and our human practices and interaction across California demonstrate this. However, we felt that the last piece of the puzzle was combining all our experiences and ideas and formatting ways to impact the community long after the competition has ended. Thus, we came up with two business plans to help us accomplish our goal.

Part I. Nonprofit

Our first idea, originating from a discussion about public innovation and hosting a mock UN session for high school students in San Diego, culminated in the creation of Verde Lux, a nonprofit organization currently seeking 501(c)3 status that will seek to empower the youth of San Diego to become key voices in the push for cleaner energy alternatives.

A full description of our vision can be found here.

Part II. Business Plan

However, we also felt that the ROBUST technology was such a key step forward in creating a sustainable bioeconomy that we decided to commercialize the technology and implement it as a biofuel production platform. Please note that this is just one of its many potential uses within bioproduction; however, given the resources at our disposal and current infrastructure, it made most sense for us to proceed in the field of biofuel and sustainable energy.

The key points of our business plan are as follows:

Customer Discovery:

One of the key struggles early on was that the implementation of this strategy in bioreactors significantly decreased our target market and reduced accessibility. Regardless, we were able to interview a number of companies from Northern California and Southern California that helped us determine key specific points of improvement:

  • Resulted in a reduced, simplified product design
  • Gave us awareness of the regulatory obstacles that we would need to overcome
  • Helped us realize the overall time and scope of implementation for SynEco

Customer Discovery Phase and Interviews

iGATE Innovation Hub

Our initial discussion with Brandon Cardwell was very helpful in giving us the basics of what we needed to do in order to have a successful entrepreneurial path. He agreed that it was definitely an interesting project, and offered us resources and other contacts who could help us with this specifics of entering the biotechnology industry.

  1. Have a proof of concept
  2. Protect our research through the proper intellectual property channels
  3. Be aware of the regulatory aspects and potential obstacles for the commercialization of the ROBUST technology.
  4. Keep a reasonable expectation about the timeframe for the implementation of the bio-production pathway, and try to keep it as simple as we could.

New Leaf Biofuel

Our discussion with a local startup, New Leaf Biofuel, also provided us with valuable information. They reiterated that our system would have to be able to provide economic parity with existing alternatives. We decided that our finalized business plan should deal with implementation of the ROBUST system in the biofuels field, because of the convenience for genetically manipulated organisms that are available to synthesize the end product. Because we were not marketing our product to the average consumer, but rather niche entities, our project have to be technically well-developed and cover all the concerns that we had considered in our Applied Design Process.

Abreos Biosciences

Our discussion with Laura Ruff, R&D at Abreos Biosciences, also gave us some key insight about some of the main points for appeal with biotech investors. She explained that there were several key considerations for most investors in the life sciences. The biggest one was the presence of a pipeline for general products. This was important because it ensured safety for an investment since a multitude of products could help cover potential losses.

She also explained that to maximize appeal, we also needed to have shorter timelines for implementation. In addition to getting a patent to build upon the ROBUST technology from the Stephanopoulos Lab, we also needed to determine the key points of implementation and start to establish a proof of concept for other product pipelines.

As a biologics company, Abreos also expressed interest in hoping to use our system at some point if it ever came to market. However, Laura also emphasized that the entrepreneurial cycle in biotechnology takes much longer because of regulatory obstacles and approval, and that these projects will take shape over the course of several years.

From this, we realized that companies in industry that relied on fermentation processes needed a product that would would meet the following requirements:

  1. Lack of cross-contamination
  2. High rates of efficiency without sacrificing quality
  3. Easy-to-use design

Value Proposition: Addressing the core issues

Lack of cross contamination

The most severe issue, as signaled by all our interviews, was the chance of cross contamination in fermentation systems. This was extremely important because contamination led to increased production costs, and raised overall costs. In addition, solutions to contamination can pose several issues: (1) options such as pressure sterilization are often expensive and not feasible in all scenarios, (2) another solution is the use of antibiotics; however, over time, this leads to antibiotic resistance and a more severe problem.

The ROBUST-inspired technology that we managed to use provides a very clearly documented alternative. By changing the feedstock to an unconventional carbon source, we virtually eliminate the chance of a non-host organism managing to outcompete host organisms. The beauty of ROBUST is that it confers a metabolic advantage to the original organisms and allows for efficient processes to continue.

High rates of efficiency without sacrificing quality

Another major issue was that in upscaling fermentation processes, bulk production would often lead to substandard product. This was most common because larger amounts of space for reactions and interactions to occur made it more difficult to predict the system’s overall output.

To address this issue, we decided to use a double-pronged strategy.

The first strategy was the implementation of a co-culture design. In doing so, we could create a system was self-sustainable and cost-effective because one of the organisms could produce the feedstock and the other could metabolize it.

The second strategy was to alter the design of our system itself. We decided to cultivate cyanobacteria, which are photosynthetic, in a photobioreactor system (see Applied Design for the criteria that we chose when selecting potential designs). In addition, a system of fiber-optic components and internal lighting helped equalize photosynthetic efficiency throughout the system.

We also altered the second component of the platform; although we have not started work on the E. coli phase of the project, several labs already have genetically modified E. coli that can metabolize tagatose. We decided that since we were going to cultivate algae biomass at a higher density than most systems, one method to retain efficiency would be to use microbioreactors to control the step of biofuel fermentation.

Business Model: Using Form and Function to Drive Our Purpose

Customer Segments. For whom are we creating value? Who are our most important customers?

Niche Market

In our case, we are creating value for a very specific segment of customers, namely those involved in the biofuel industry. Our most important customers include national entities such as the Department of Energy, as well as regional power affiliates who play a key role in securing the energy grid. All our relationships are tailored to the needs of the niche market, and leads to a very co-dependent relationship.

Value Propositions. What value do we deliver to customers?


Our company provides a solution to an existing problem that does not have many viable alternatives at the time. It also leverages unique technology throughout its design.


Our system is expected to outperform existing options on the market, and at a significantly lower operating cost. In fact, our system leads to a 50 fold reduction in production costs.


Because we realize that human interference is one of the driving reasons behind inefficiency, we have decided to automate the second part of our platform, making it operable from a smartphone platform if the user prefers that option.


How do you reach your customers? Is there a method to integrate channels?

Raise awareness

Get involved with the community, and demonstrate the need for our system. After building name and brand exposure, the next step is to raise awareness of our company and appear as the most ideal solution for users.

Customer Relationships

What type of relationship does each of our Customer segments expect us to establish with them?

Personal assistance

At SynEco, we bring a customer-oriented mindset to the game, and are dedicated to helping our consumers with any problem that they may run into. In addition, we establish several points of contact with our clients, going beyond the initial purchase.

Automated services

Our commitment to accessibility and usability drives us in everything we do. Therefore, we have implemented a smartphone app platform that will help us integrate all our processes and bring them together at a central point.

Revenue Streams. For what value are our customers really willing to pay? How much does each Revenue Stream contribute to overall revenues?

Our business model proposes that our revenue come from two sources:

The versatility of our platform

The beauty of our platform lies in its modular approach. Although the concept of xenobiotics is always applied, a number of biofuels can be produced by E. coli including ethanol, isobutanol, among others. This allows for a wide range of biofuels to be produced based on the metrics of supply and demand

Renting out our single-use systems to existing companies

Because our company has opted for the single-use disposable reactors concept, we can also rent out our services for a fee. This allows a secondary stream of revenue that directly meets our consumers need for contamination-free fermentation, and plays a role in the expansion of our company.

Key Partnerships. Who are your Key Partners? What key resources do they provide and what key activities do they perform?/h1>

Partnership with UCSD entities

Reduction of risk and uncertainty.

A partnership with certain labs in UCSD will enable our company to maintain its pipeline of innovation. It also enables a constant lab testing ground for different modifications to the ROBUST technology, ensuring that our company is always one step ahead of its competitors by mapping out several generations of bioreactors and subsequent improvements.

Cost Structure

We will employ a cost-driven structure meaning that our company will seek to minimize costs at whichever points of production it is possible. We have already taken the appropriate steps to accomplish this: we have driven down the costs of operating including innovations in upstream and downstream processing. In addition, we have used a co-culture design to drive down costs of synthesis, and we also have used a continuous processing method to ensure shorter batch times and relatively high quality.

What sets apart our business model?

The beauty of our business model lies in the converging streams of revenue, which employs a hybrid approach in long term and short term revenue generation. In addition, our connections within the community help ensure that a pipeline of talent and innovation is always the focus at SynEco.

Our plan has been pitched and vetted to a number of venture capitalists, pending the proof of concept developed by our team. In addition, a brief discussion with Pengfei Gu also suggested that we were on the path for a viable product in the market, and Abreos Biosciences expressed interest if our system ever came to market.


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