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The green chemistry startup disrupting pharmaceuticals

Berlin-based company Dude Chem is attempting to shake things up in the world of pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Dude Chem team

The Dude Chem team. Photo courtesy of Dude Chem

When it comes to discussions about creating sustainable industries, one question is often left unanswered: What to do about healthcare?

The sector is responsible for 4.4 percent of global carbon emissions, a CO2 footprint expected to more than triple by 2050 if left unchecked, and yet it receives relatively little attention from the sustainability community as a cause for concern.

The pharmaceutical industry is a particularly emission-intensive part of the healthcare machine. A 2019 study carried out by researchers at McMaster University found pharmaceutical companies generate 48.55 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per $1 million of revenue — 55 percent higher than the emissions intensity of the much more closely scrutinized automotive industry.

Interlinked with the emissions issue, although not directly correlated, is the materials challenge pharmaceutical companies face. Put simply, developing and manufacturing drugs requires a vast amount of raw material input, produces an equally vast amount of waste, and the end result is a small amount of the desired product, known as the active pharmaceutical ingredient, or API.

To quantify these inefficiencies, chemists generally use two metrics: process mass intensity (PMI) and the environmental impact factor (E-factor). The former is the ratio of the mass of input materials to product, a value of one being optimal; the latter is the ratio of the mass of waste materials to the mass of product, in which case a value of zero would be the ideal.

Yet, typical PMIs and E-factors in pharmaceutical processes can be anywhere from around 25 to the low hundreds — potentially even higher during early developmental stages. Compare that to the PMIs and E-factors of approximately 1.1 and 0.1, respectively, in the petrochemical industry — or less than five for bulk chemicals such as plastics and polymers — and you begin to get a sense of the scale of inefficiencies involved with drug manufacturing.

The company uses high-tech computer modeling techniques and a 'patented green tech toolbox' to develop, optimize and scale up new chemical processes and synthesis routes in-house.

In the face of these challenges, pharmaceutical manufacturing and green chemistry experts Dude Chem entered the fray back in 2019, with the goal of transforming the current pharma-chemical industry into an environmentally benign sector. The company raised about 3 million in seed funding in 2022 and already boasts some impressive clients on its books, including one of Germany’s largest manufacturers of generic drugs that are no longer under patent protection. That company (which has declined to be named publicly) has signed a contract agreement worth $5.5 million in annual recurring revenue to de-risk its supply of essential medicines. Big players such as Lonza, Boehringer Ingelheim and DSM have also had manufacturing processes optimized by individuals who are now on the Dude Chem team.  

The company’s modus operandi centers around the implementation of 12 principles of green chemistry, originally co-conceived by Professor John Warner — who has joined Dude Chem as a Distinguished Research Fellow — in the late 1990s. Each principle contributes in one way or another to safety, risk management, human and environmental health, energy conservation and efficiency, and waste and pollution reduction.

But while the principles are over two decades old, their application by Dude Chem is at the cutting edge. The company uses high-tech computer modeling techniques and a "patented green tech toolbox" to develop, optimize and scale up new chemical processes and synthesis routes in-house. These can then be implemented by contract manufacturers on behalf of the client pharmaceutical company.

Once a process is in place, Dude Chem — whose chief engineer was the first in Germany to lecture on data science specifically for chemists — applies data analytics to monitor plant output data, providing clients with real-time insights into sustainability targets and helping to quickly identify potential errors in what is known as "first-time-right" production.

The results of this approach are impressive; Dude Chem says one process under development by the team has reported a 71 percent reduction in waste, and that is before process optimization has even finished. Reducing waste in chemical production, as the company’s website states, "is critical to the sustainable impact [Dude Chem is] making and one of the keys to significant cost savings for [Dude Chem’s] customers."

"Our business model is based on the idea that expert chemists don’t need to be plant owners to actually bring their innovations to market," Morgan Young, sustainability policy officer at Dude Chem, told me. "Since we are asset-free, this gives us the flexibility to quickly scale up our processes at a variety of partnering facilities and take into account which plant best fits the technical and logistical needs of a particular project."

"Mother Nature has set clear deadlines and an industry transformation needs to happen as quickly as possible," Young continued. “We believe our approach is the most expedient way to facilitate the tech transfers that are part and parcel of that transformation.”

As things stand, Dude Chem is focused on the European markets, although it has plans to expand into North America and Japan in the not-so-distant future. Other industries are on the horizon, too; the team was eager to express that the lessons learned from pharmaceuticals could be applied to just about any chemical industry and will need to be if we’re to stand a chance of making such sectors sustainable over the coming decades.

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