Innovator Profile: Kevin Barnett and George Huber

Within the field of chemical engineering, there are plenty of opportunities for graduate students. These roles, however, are predominantly focused on petroleum-based processing and other areas that can negatively impact the environment and slow down progress in climate activism. Kevin Barnett, however, came to UW–Madison to use his chemical engineering education for good. At the university, he sought out Professor George Huber, who is widely known for his research in developing new technologies producing renewable liquid fuels and chemicals out of biomass. Barnett and Huber began their work on Pyran, a now groundbreaking venture in sustainable chemistry, stemming from their collaborative research.

Pyran specializes in producing renewable chemicals from biomass, providing sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based chemicals. Pyran’s current focus centers on scaling technology for their first product, 1,5-PDO, a renewable paint ingredient that can be used for purposes ranging from car interiors to dentistry fillings. Reflecting on Pyran’s journey, the co-founders emphasize the underestimated challenges in scaling technology and offer valuable advice to aspiring innovators, stressing the need for an entrepreneurial mindset and continuous customer engagement. In 2023, Pyran made the list of Wisconsin’s twenty highest-earning startups for fundraising, paving the way for a greener future in the chemicals industry.

We asked Barnett and Huber to speak on their experience spinning out a startup company from research and his vision for the future of sustainable chemical engineering:

Where did the idea for your company come from initially?

Barnett: It was invented by myself and Professors George Huber and James Dumesic. Our idea went through WARF first, then Pyran then licensed that idea, which was how we started the company.

How has D2P helped you, and what have you learned?

Barnett: When Professor Huber and I first started Pyran, I took part in D2P’s Igniter program. It introduced me to methods of scaling up technology and intellectual property and customer discovery—the business side of startups. These learnings were vital to this young technologist getting more into business.

What other entrepreneurial resources/programs have guided you?

George Huber working in Pyran’s lab

Barnett: We participated in the gBeta accelerator program around the same time as D2P. We also participated in the Clean Tech Open accelerator program.

What’s your current focus with the company?

Barnett: Our current focus is scaling up our technology to make the first product, a renewable paint ingredient called 1,5-PDO. Since we launched Pyran, we have scaled over a thousand times and made several tons of product through demonstration-scale production. Now, we are in the design part of the commercial plant.

What are your hopes for the company moving forward?

Barnett: I initially came to graduate school at UW to focus on sustainability. As a chemical engineer, there are a lot of jobs in petroleum-based processing. My primary motivation was instead to prove and push for sustainability in the chemicals industry. George Huber is very well known for creating new technologies in sustainable chemistry in biomass. That was the main motivator behind why I came to UW in the first place, and how George Huber and I spun out Pyran from the university.

Huber: To build commercial facilities and start producing the products at the commercial scale.

What drives you/why is this project important to you personally?

Huber: The chemical and food industry both have large carbon emissions. We need to make products with lower carbon emissions. Both industries also produce large amounts of wastes.  We need to learn how to make products from these waste materials.

What advice would you give to other campus innovators who are just starting exploring the potential of their ideas?

Barnett: My main advice would be to have an entrepreneurial mindset as you are going through your research if creating a startup is something you’re interested in. As a graduate student, your focus is on the science, but it is beneficial to—in parallel—take part in programs like D2P and learn more about the entrepreneurial side. Just having that lens as you’re doing your research will be vital to achieving the outcome of creating or joining a startup company.

Huber: It is critical that you understand the market and how technologies are developed. It is not easy to develop technology; it requires a lot of teamwork. I have benefited by working with a lot of people in trying to commercialize several technologies. This has contributed to all aspects of my professional career. 

Is there an experience during the development of your project that surprised you or had a powerful impact on your direction? What did you learn, or how did it change your thinking?

Barnett: I was surprised by how much you learn from customers as you go out and do customer discovery to learn about the market. Graduate students and technologists have an idea of a customer’s technological wants, but once you talk to customers and learn from them it reshapes the direction of your business and how you go about scaling up your technology.

 How do you balance the time you must spend on your project with other work and life responsibilities?

Barnett: Starting a company is a lot of work, there’s no way around that. But a critical part is to surround yourself with good people. If you choose good advisors, then it really helps as you spin your company out of the university.

Pyran’s 1,5-PDO

Huber: My first two priorities are my family and my faith. I always make sure I fulfill the responsibilities I have to my family and my church. I try always to be home for dinner and make sure I spend time with my children and wife. Three of my children are now in college and now I only have one at home. I try to make sure I focus on their needs while at home.

Campus is full of bright minds and amazing ideas, but people often do not self-identify as an entrepreneur. Do you connect with that term, and why or why not? Is there another term you’d use to describe what you’re doing with your project?

Barnett: Entrepreneur is a pretty good word. It doesn’t mean you have to start a business. It’s about having an entrepreneurial mindset as a graduate student and continuously looking around you for new opportunities.

Huber: Another important word is collaborator. The university has a wide range of expertise.  As an entrepreneur, you need to learn how to work with a wide range of people and use those skill sets. The expertise that is available at UW is amazing.

Were there things that arose along the way, while you were growing Pyran beyond the University, that you didn’t expect, that no one could prepare you for?

Barnett: It is easy to underestimate what it takes to scale technology. You’ll probably hear the same answer from everyone who’s done this before, but we experienced it first-hand. We were told at the start that if you were to make a list of 100 things that could go wrong, there will always be a 101, a 102, and a 103. This will always be the case if you scale up a thousand times. You’re just going to learn something through this process. That’s why you do it before you move to a commercial plan. It’s a lesson for people scaling up to budget in more time and money than you think you need to be ready to tackle the unknowns.

In 2023, Pyran was in the top 20 for Wisconsin venture capital fundraising. How does this relate to the idea of learning on the fly?

Kevin Barnett speaking at a conference

Barnett: We were able to tackle challenges and successfully make several tons of product, which was our goal. Based on the success of the demonstration campaign that led to the series B fundraiser of around five and a half million dollars, a chemical company (KOWA Company, which produces a wide variety of products across multiple industries, including healthcare, industrial, and energy conservation) became interested in partnering with us on the commercialization. It launched us into the design part of our commercial plan, which we’re doing this year. It was about a year of diligence before the final investment. The initial connection occurred through sampling our product to them, as they would be a distributor. One of the primary purposes we did this demonstration campaign was to obtain engineering data to design the plan where those learnings came from. The other is to sample products for customers. Before they purchase commercial quantities, they want to sit on smaller scales, and that’s where we met KOA. We gave them some of the products of the tons we made from that campaign, and the product looked good; that was the initial spark of their interest.

Is there anything that sticks out as the key learning you must have before deciding to initiate a start up?

Barnett: One top priority is knowing your value and where to bring in others. After a couple of years of being CEO of Pyran, I hired a new CEO and moved to CTO. For the first couple of years as CEO, I was still in the lab every single day. At some point, I began to wonder if my value was being in the laboratory or raising money and talking to customers. It’s knowing where to draw the line on both sides. It’s hard because there are dozens of things to do, but you can’t do them all, so it’s important to know what you should have others do versus where your values are and where you should focus. Another really important element is to continuously talk to the customers. It’s not technologies that fail; it’s the market. You can spend years with your head down, developing a technology no one wants. It’s dangerous because if you do that, you might not have a business. You must talk to the customers earlier because you may have to pivot throughout the whole course of the company. Five to six years into Pyran, we continue to learn new things from the customers I never would have guessed at the start, all the time.

Read more innovator profiles from D2P