Team effort pushing Allied Microbiata toward pay dirt

Eat up: The science works -- certain microorganisms will ingest toxins, thereby remediating contaminated soil. But proving the science is cost-efficient is a whole other challenge, according to entrepreneur Raymond Sambrotto.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Raymond Sambrotto is knee-deep in toxic waste in Delaware, and pretty happy about it.

It’s been nearly three years since Sambrotto and co-founder Frana James launched Allied Microbiata, a now-Stony Brook-based biotech with a taste for environmental remediation, and about four months since the startup engaged its most ambitious field test to date, setting its PCB-eating microorganisms upon thousands of pounds of contaminated soil and sediment at a site in Delaware.

The test, in partnership with New Jersey-based environmental engineering firm Clean Earth, started around the same time James left the company, leaving Sambrotto – a longtime Columbia University microbiologist – to go it alone.

Actually, Sambrotto, who fleshed out the science over several years of lab work, is hardly alone. Allied Microbiata, a longtime client of Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubation Program, relocated late last year from its original Brooklyn digs to SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, where grade-A resources – from eager student researchers to likeminded entrepreneurs to state-of-the-art facilities – are plentiful.

Raymond Sambrotto: All the help he can get.

“We’ve always had a lot of great help,” Sambrotto told Innovate LI. “Now we’re at the point where we’re looking for revenue.”

The operation in Delaware is key to that next step. The months-long test follows an earlier experiment with Clean Earth, in which Allied Microbiata’s tech was used to remediate contaminated industrial drums, “proving efficacy,” according to Sambrotto.

“The pilot was in 55-gallon drums, a fairly standard size for industrial drums,” he noted. “Now we’re setting up a large-scale system, because the next issue is cost.”

Essentially, that means the soil-remediation science works – Sambrotto’s micro-biotics will do the job – but questions remain about cost-efficiency when deploying on a larger scale.

Hence the Delaware test, which is working on “multiple tons” of contaminated material, Sambrotto said.

“The only why you can really address costs is scaling it up, and seeing what it costs to incubate it and keep it happy,” he added.

The fact that the microorganisms do the job comes as no surprise to Sambrotto, who’s spent years sharpening Allied Microbiata’s science and nearly as many tooling the company’s business pitch, including 18 months in Columbia’s PowerBridge NY tech-commercialization program and another two years as part of CEBIP.

Now, the acting CEO (“not by choice”) has Allied Microbiata and its pollution-absorbing microorganisms on the edge of commercialization – thanks largely to Clean Earth, a “primary partner” in the development of the soil-remediating microbials, according to Sambrotto.

“[Clean Earth] has obviously helped us with a lot of in-kind funding, in terms of buying equipment and providing manpower,” the scientist noted. “And they’re doing that in the hope of having something of use.”

As his company approaches the revenue-generating threshold, Sambrotto – an associate professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who is admittedly more comfortable in the laboratory than the board room – is grateful for the assistance of his New Jersey partner, and others.

In addition to new hire Mohit Gupta, a NYSERDA-funded entrepreneur-in-residence and former Cargill executive who spent 15 years rising through the ranks of America’s largest private corporation (by revenue), Sambrotto also noted copious assistance from various programs across SBU’s business-development ecosystem.

“The physical space (inside the AERTC) is a lot more than we could ever afford in Brooklyn,” he said. “We’ve got room now to do the development and the production work together, which we could never do before.

“And there are these associations with the other people who work in the Advanced Energy Center – a lot of professional collaboration,” Sambrotto added. “Mohit had so much experience with this industry at Cargill, and CEBIP has monthly status meeting to go over everything we’ve done, and how to deal with the sticking points we’re facing.

“We have lots of people watching us now … but of course, Clean Earth is our best bet.”