Javier García-Martínez on the Commercialization of Research

Javier García-Martínez on the Commercialization of Research

Author: Vera Köster, Javier García-Martínez

Javier García-Martínez is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and leads the Laboratory of Molecular Nanotechnology at the University of Alicante, Spain. He is the founder of Rive Technology, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spin-off company commercializing nanomaterials for energy applications. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies and of the Bureau of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).

Dr. Vera Köster talks to him for ChemistryViews about how he has commercialized a zeolite catalyst for oil refining, the challenges and rewards of setting up a company, and how he finds time for each of his many roles.


In 2001 you went to MIT to do your postdoc with a Fulbright fellowship. You also founded your own company Rive Technology there. How did this happen?

Looking back now, it is interesting, because I didn’t set out intending to create a company. When I went to the US for my postdoc, I was focused on my academic career, but MIT is wonderful at creating the right environment for researchers to become entrepreneurs. They really help students to launch their companies through a myriad of programs where mentors, advisors, and potential investors get involved from the very beginning.

For me, it was a very natural process. Entrepreneurship is woven into the fabric of MIT, it happens naturally, from the bottom-up. Here in Europe, we tend to do things top-down. But what I saw at MIT—what I actually lived there—was that many things were driven by the students. We need to empower our students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, if we want things to change in Europe.


How did you get the idea for your company?

During my postdoc I worked on the introduction of mesoporosity in zeolites, which is a very relevant topic to the chemical industry. Zeolites are widely used as catalysts and adsorbents but their narrow pores (typically below 1 nm) restrict the size of the molecules that they can process. This has been a long-standing problem which has severely limited the application of zeolites in diffusion-challenged processes. At MIT, I found a way to use the same surfactants employed to produce mesoporous materials to introduce controlled mesoporosity in zeolites. In the past, people tried more traditional technologies like steaming, acid wash, and alkaline leaching, which significantly damage the structure of the zeolite. But by combining what I learned at MIT on the use of surfactants to induce mesopore formation and then integrating my Ph.D. work on zeolites, I managed to introduce controlled mesoporosity in zeolites while maintaining their structural integrity, strong acidity and superior hydrothermal stability. It was not an easy task, but I benefited from a large body of work done on both zeolites and mesoporous materials.


Why did you think that this idea could become a company?

When I confirmed the presence of mesoporosity in my zeolites, I said to myself: I am going to send two samples to an independent lab labeled as sample A and B. Sample A was the traditional catalyst, B my catalyst. If I get more than a certain percent of extra gasoline using my catalyst, the commercial opportunity will be enormous, and I will create a company. The results were so impressive that I decided to patent my technology and create a company to commercialize it at that very moment. That was the beginning of Rive Technology.


So how did you then proceed?

Many MIT students who want to commercialize their technologies take part in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, and so did I. I put together a business plan and created a team to make it a reality. Today, Rive Technology employs 50 people and has raised 47 million dollars which we are using to advance and commercialize the technology. I am delighted to say last year we put our catalyst in a commercial refinery. This is the first time that a hierarchical zeolite, an emerging field in the mature area of zeolites, has been tested on the commercial scale. We have recently published these results in a paper in ChemComm, which confirmed everything we observed at the pilot scale. Our more accessible catalysts were dramatically more selective than the incumbent catalyst, significantly increasing the yield of the desired fractions.

A few months ago, we completed an even larger second refinery trial of our new generation of catalysts, significantly improving our first results. So far it is looking very good. Now, our priority is to put our catalysts in as many refineries as possible and expand our platform technology to other chemical processes, beyond oil refining.


How did you continue with your own research while building up your company?

I do believe that in the future we are going to see more scientists doing world-class research while commercializing their technologies. In fact, many of the best chemists today are involved in start-ups while doing cutting-edge research of the best quality. Personally, I see this as a great opportunity. Rive Technology gives me the chance to apply some of my discoveries while I am doing basic research in materials chemistry. As an academic, I enjoyed the freedom to explore new disruptive ideas, collaborating with colleagues from all around the world, and sharing new results in journals and at conferences. As an entrepreneur, I enjoyed seeing my discoveries improving people´s lives. Attracting funding from industry to support your research is easier when you have a good track record of protecting and commercializing your technology. Work in the commercial world is also helpful in my teaching: students have mentioned to me many times that they enjoyed learning from someone with first-hand experience both in industry and academia, someone that actually took the risk to start his own company.


What is your research focused on?

I have a quite broad range of interests. Besides my work on mesoporous zeolites, we have done a lot of work on the incorporation of chemical functionality in mesoporous materials. Typically, porous materials are used just as supports. They are functionalized once prepared to confer them with different properties, such as catalytic, optical or biological activity, just to cite a few. We have developed a novel bottom-up technique, which we call sol-gel coordination chemistry, based on the building of porous material around the chemical functionality. Our method allows for a better dispersion and homogeneity of the active phase, significantly reducing its sintering and leaching during usage. Recently, we published a Feature Article in ChemComm which summarizes some of our main results in this field and its application in catalysis. I am also co-editing a special issue of ChemCatChem on the same topic that will be launched next year.


You have also very successfully written books. What interests you about writing?

I really enjoyed books. I may be old-fashioned, but I do believe books are very important to organize and preserve our knowledge. That is why I work on books that I feel are needed, books I would like to read. My first book for Wiley-VCH was on nanotechnology for energy applications. When I started this project, four years ago, this was an emerging field. Now most chemistry journals and conferences include some sections on energy, or nanotechnology, and in many cases, on both. In recent years, we have seen several spectacular breakthroughs in the field, like the use of graphene in various energy production technologies, and significant advance in the use of nanomaterials for advanced energy storage and conversion devices. I am glad to say that the first edition of “Nanotechnology for the Energy Challenge” is now sold-out and that the new and extended second version will be launched next year.

My second book was about the role of Chemistry providing solutions to our global challenges, something I feel very passionate about. Last year, I was elected to the IUPAC Bureau. As a new Bureau member, I thought that I had to make a contribution, especially for the International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2012). One of the main aims of the IYC was to emphasize that chemistry is a creative science essential for sustainability and improvements to our way of life, so I thought that this was a wonderful opportunity for a new book. “The Chemical Element” is a celebration of chemistry contributions to our global future. The book contains many specific examples of how chemists are creating solutions for poverty eradication, water, energy, food, and health. Everything was actually framed under the Millennium Development Goals, so we got the patronage from UNESCO for the book.


I guess you had to do lots of research for the books as these topics are not something you naturally know because you are working on them.

You are absolutely right. The one on nanotechnology was easier, because I read all these papers as part of my research activity. One of my tasks as the editor of the book was to find other authors. For some mature topics this was quite straightforward, but for emerging ones it was really difficult. In the second edition of the book, there are three new chapters. One is on graphene for energy production, a topic that has developed only since I started the first edition, just four years ago. It’s amazing how fast things are evolving in the field of nanotechnology and its potential impact in the future of energy.

For the other book, the one on sustainability, I found many authors through IUPAC. I am proud to say that IUPAC is very keen on sustainability and the role of Chemistry in providing solutions for a better world. Many people within IUPAC are real champions on raising the public appreciation and understanding of the key role of Chemistry in our lives. For example, Peter Mahaffy, who is the chair of the Committee on Chemistry Education, wrote the wonderful chapter “The Human Element” in the “Chemical Element”. I knew already a lot of people who could contribute, but every book takes at least two years of work from the day I get the okay from Martin [Senior Commissioning Editor at Wiley-VCH] to the day I say to him, “Here are the chapters”. It takes a lot of time but it is very rewarding.


This is the first time IUPAC has elected someone so young for its Bureau, could you tell us more about how this has happened and your work in IUPAC?

The ten members of the Bureau, which is the governing body of IUPAC, are elected by the countries´ representatives during the IUPAC General Assembly which is held every two years and feels like the UN General Assembly, with delegates from all around the World. I tried to bring the voice of younger chemists to the IUPAC because I do believe we have a lot to contribute. I am also very keen to increase the number of countries who are members of IUPAC. Very recently, I was in Mexico at the Latin American Chemistry Conference where I met with the Presidents of various chemical societies to get more Latin American countries in the Union. Also I am very much involved in the work of my Division on Inorganic Chemistry. For example, I am part of the group which recently published in CrysEngComm the IUPAC recommendations on the nomenclature and terminology of Molecular Organic Frameworks.


What is your motivation to get all of these different things together?

I feel very passionate about chemistry and I try to share this passion with others, especially with my students. I encourage them to read popular chemistry books, to learn about the lives of great chemists, to attend chemistry demonstrations …, anything beyond their curricular activities. If you study Architecture or Literature, you don´t restrict yourself to textbooks. On the contrary, students of these disciplines enjoy visiting museums, meeting other artists, or traveling to see famous buildings. Chemistry is all about discovery and creativity. So, our students should enjoy it while learning about it.


How do you connect all of these things and make sure that you have enough time for all of them and don’t end up with maybe one year without research because you were occupied by your company?

That’s an excellent point. It’s very important to manage your time well, to have clear milestones and objectives. I am always aware of what’s important, get my priorities straight, and try to meet deadlines. With the books, it works very well. I use conferences to identify potential authors and meet with those who I think are doing something significant in their field.

It is also helpful that now we can do many things by e-mail. So even if I’m not in my lab in Spain, I can still get the same data that I would be getting if I was in my office, just two meters from my lab, and still interpret data and interact with my students. So, clear planning and good time management, clear milestones are important. Like an athlete or successful businessman it’s all a matter of self-discipline and having clear goals and milestones.

And the other thing I have to say, which is very important, is to be a good team player. When people feel that they are valued and see that they are getting something, people are more motivated. Making sure everyone knows what their role is and that you are doing your part, of course, is essential. When you share a passion; people feel excited and get passionate as well.


So what is the most fascinating from all of your different jobs, or is it the combination …?

It’s the unique combination. From time to time, things come together and you get very rewarding moments, for example, when we got the results from the refinery and they confirmed what I saw years ago in the lab when I was at MIT working on the gram scale. The wonder of chemistry, that something which works at a very small scale is still there when you scale it up 50,000 times. Creating your own company to commercialize your technology is also a great experience. It is very gratifying to know that a lot of people are working together, sharing a common goal, pushing in the same direction.

Another thing that was very rewarding was the Global Water Experiment. Almost every single day I was getting e-mails from people from all around the world. People from Nigeria, telling me this is the first time their students went outside the classroom to do a chemical experiment. I still remember a classroom of girls in Amman in Jordan who told me that this was the first time they were considering a career in science. We got many, many pictures, almost every day, so we created an online gallery and shared them on the website of the Global Water Experiment. At the end of this IYC activity, we created an interactive map with all the data we got and presented the results at the UN World Water Forum in Marseille, France. It was a big success.

People can still download the protocols and do the experiments, but no more data can be uploaded at the moment. Both at IUPAC and UNESCO are working to open again the Global Water Experiment.


So there will be new global experiments?

That’s right. At this point, we are trying to get funding. It was a very expensive project. Creating the website and sending free kits out to 30 countries was quite costly. However, thanks to the Global Water Experiment, there are hundreds of schools in poor countries that are still using these kits now as basic chemical equipment.


What else do you do? I mean do you have any time left to do things besides your work?

Sure, I do. For example, I love exploring other countries. I travel light, with my old backpack and the bare minimum. This gives me the opportunity to meet people with very different backgrounds. I enjoyed learning from their experiences and their points of views. I also like art and history, which is nice when I am travelling. Photography is also a great passion of mine, which is great because of all my travelling. In terms of sports, I like water activities, especially scuba diving, which I recently enjoyed in the Mexican Caribbean. I highly recommend it.


Wow. So I’m still very impressed how you get all of this in your 24 hours.

It’s a matter of doing things that you feel passionate about. I think it was Confucius who said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”.


Thank you very much for the interview and for sharing your passion with us.

Javier Garcia Martinez
Javier García-Martínez
is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and leads the Laboratory of Molecular Nanotechnology at the University of Alicante, Spain. He is the founder of Rive Technology, Inc., Boston, MA, USA, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-spin-off commercializing nanomaterials for energy applications.

He received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Alicante, Spain, in 2000. From 2001–2003 he went as a Fulbright Postdotoral Fellow to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, USA.

His research focuses on mesoporous materials and their modification with metal complexes and nanoparticles to improve their catalytic performance and reusability. He also works on mesoporous zeolites for refining applications and nanomaterials for catalysis, photocatalysis and energy storage.

García-Martínez is vice-chair of the World Economic Forum General Assembly Council on Emerging Technologies and a member of Bureau of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).


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