Knowledge transfer is a result of a Cornell University education, which materializes into many different forms—including entrepreneurial careers that serve global communities, produce beneficial products, and catalyze sustainable economic development. These thriving careers of Cornell alumni entrepreneurs are the foundation of global economic success. They advance innovation and service that make a different in the world. Their companies serve society’s wide-ranging needs, improving the quality of life for people everywhere.
From Greek Yogurt Waste to Viable Products
Amy Penick ’17, Research and Development Engineer, Capro-X
Amy Penick ’17 wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering, but she knew she didn’t want the typical career. “Around my senior year, I saw my peers in chemical engineering choosing the usual pathways, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to do any of that,’” Penick remembers. Instead, she chose to work for startup company Capro-X, an agritech spinoff from Cornell University located in Ithaca, New York.
Capro-X uses an innovative fermentation process to solve the problem of acid whey waste generated by the Greek yogurt industry. “What we do is essentially convert waste to energy,” Penick says. The startup is based on technology pioneered by Capro-X chief executive officer and cofounder Juan J. L. Guzman, PhD ’17 Biological and Environmental Engineering, and his PhD adviser, Largus T. Angenent, cofounder and scientific adviser (now at the University of Tübingen, Germany).
Every one cup of Greek yogurt results in three cups of acid whey waste. Since New York State is responsible for more than half the Greek yogurt produced in the United States, the waste issue is a big one for the state. “Whey has to be trucked offsite either to farms to be used as feed or fertilizer or to an anerobic digestion facility,” Penick says. “So that’s a large part of the carbon footprint for the industry. Our process is more sustainable because the reactors are onsite.” Capro-X reactors convert whey into medium chain carboxylic acids, which are considered valuable platform chemicals due to their wide applications. One of the company’s chemical products is a biofuel additive. Others have applications in the flavor and fragrance industry, as a palm oil replacement or as nutritionally rich livestock feed.
Penick came to Capro-X after carrying out a year-long fellowship with the Cornell Campus Sustainability Office (CSO) directly after graduation. That experience gave her perspective to decide the best way to use her chemical engineering degree. It also resulted in her advisor, CSO director Sarah C. Zemanick, putting her in touch with Guzman. Soon after, Penick joined Capro-X as an entrepreneur working within a startup.
In her role as research and development engineer, Penick has a chance to pitch in wherever she’s needed in the day-to-day operations of the company. “Especially in the formative stages of a startup company like ours, I get to have my hands on all parts of the process,” she says, although Guzman handles the business and financial side of things. “I think he does that to allow me more space to focus on the technical aspect. Until recently, we were doing a lot of data collection, and we have one-gallon reactors running in parallel in our lab, which I’m responsible for. Now I’m getting to learn about design work as we scale up.”
Capro-X took a big step forward in the summer of 2019 when it constructed a 100-gallon system onsite at a local yogurt facility. The company plans to follow up in the summer of 2020 by constructing a 2,000-gallon system, and then the year after, a 20,000-gallon one. Currently she and Guzman are running more optimization experiments on the one-gallon reactors in the Capro-X lab, which will inform how they design the bigger systems.
In the fall of 2019, Capro-X pitched with 16 other companies from across the globe at Grow-NY—a food and ag-tech innovation competition focused on building impactful food and agriculture business in the Finger Lakes, Central New York, and Southern Tier regions. Capro-X’s pitch won them a $250,000 prize, which they are using to accelerate their R&D, advance their team, and expand their downtown-Ithaca offices.
Capro-X plans to bring their WheyAway treatment systems to the market by 2022, where they plan to tackle the problematic acid whey byproduct from Greek yogurt production, a majority of which is produced within a few hours' drive from Capro-X’s headquarters in Ithaca.
Over the past 18 months, Penick has shared the insights she’s gained at the startup with chemical engineering students she knows who are a few years behind her at Cornell. “They went through that transition of not knowing what they wanted to do with their degree, and I wanted to actively show them there are other options that aren’t necessarily super accessible or easy but that can be really fulfilling,” she says. “I tell them, ‘You’re at liberty to use your degree any way you see fit. Find something you’re interested in and go for it.’”
She’s glad she took her own advice, she says. Contributing to Capro-X’s success is satisfying, especially in light of her commitment to sustainability. “I think it’s important to use my skillset in a way that positively impacts the planet,” she says. “That’s my bias as an environmentally conscious person.”