Macquarie Uni spinout HydGene Renewables raises $6 million

- June 20, 2023 3 MIN READ
HydGene Renewables cofounders Robert Willows, Louise Brown, Kerstin Petroll, and Tony Jerkovic
HydGene Renewables cofounders Robert Willows, Louise Brown, Kerstin Petroll, and Tony Jerkovic
Green hydrogen startup HydGene Renewables, has raised $6 million to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels to produce the energy source.

The round into the Macquarie University synthetic biology spinout was led by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s Clean Energy Innovation Fund, which chipped in $2 million, and specialist UK investor Agronomics.

HydGene’s technology is focused on making the hydrogen where and when it’s needed – ideally from already abundant renewable biomass sources, with the production byproducts returned to the ground to improve soil health

Hydgene plans to use the funds to establish a pilot plant, expand its team, and conduct further research as it looks to replace the 99% of hydrogen produced using coal and natural gas.

Cofounder and CEO Dr Louise Brown has just emerged from the revived CSIRO ON Accelerate bootcamp and wants to address the industry’s “elephant in the room” – the challenges of hydrogen transportation and storage, says Dr Brown, is the fact that hydrogen is a difficult molecule to move around and so most hydrogen today is used nearby where it is made.

“The hydrogen market today is massive – a $130 billion industry based on fossil fuels where the hydrogen isn’t clean when it’s made, and it’s mostly used in chemical manufacturing such as producing ammonia for agricultural fertilisers,” Dr Brown said.

“We must first decarbonise the hydrogen production sector so we can move towards the future for hydrogen as a driver in the green economy, where it can be used with fuel cells to produce electricity to deal with remote energy problems, or as a fuel for transport, and a whole range of other new applications such as the manufacturing of green steel. But to achieve that, we have to be able to compete with the fossil fuel industry and produce it at low cost, at scale, tapping into abundant renewables.”

Her cofounders, Professor Robert WillowsDr Kerstin Petroll, and Dr Ante (Tony) Jerkovic, all work on the frontlines of a deep tech revolution in the rapidly expanding field of synthetic biology, producing sustainable and carbon-negative hydrogen from renewable biomass residues that can be broken down into sugar.

At its heart is a bioengineered biocatalyst platform, an engineered microbe whose genetic code has been altered to enable it to take in sugars from plant-based materials such as straw, woodchips, paper, pulp – even human sewage – and convert them to hydrogen.

It’s a solution suited to rural communities where waste from agriculture, forestry, and food production is abundant.

“We’re value-adding and upcycling problematic, high-volume biomass waste materials into a localised green energy source,” Dr Brown said.

“The biocatalyst sits in a cartridge, it’s incredibly stable, we feed it the sugars, and the hydrogen is generated. And this biocatalyst material can do that for many months; we’ve got a batch that’s still going strong after one year, and as we continue to improve yields, we can really start to drive the cost down.”

Having stepped away from academia last year to focus on HydGene, Brown has been supported by Macquarie as an investor, also helping them land a $2.8 million ARENA R&D grant. She’s grateful for the institutional support

“Deep tech requires expensive infrastructure and shiny toys to be able to do analytical measurements and scale-up, things a startup just doesn’t have access to,” she said.

“So, I think it would have been very difficult for us, outside of a university environment and without that support, to get that core technology developed when we were starting out. We also gained valuable support through the programs and network at Macquarie Incubator, learning from like-minded entrepreneurs across varied industries.”

And hydrogen is just the beginning.

“We very much want to revolutionise the way that we can make green molecules, and not just hydrogen – we’re already working on a strain that can take nitrogen from the air and make an ammonia-based fertiliser,” Brown said.

“We’re looking at other small molecules that today come from the fossil fuel industry, seeking to find a biological pathway that can make them in a cleaner way.”

HydGene is one of several synthetic biology companies to spin out of Macquarie University in the last year.