Chain Reaction

You came to St. Louis to study Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology, known as PNP, at Washington University in St. Louis, but you ended up in the chemical engineering industry. How did that happen? 

My dad is from the first generation of chemical engineers trained professionally to help large corporations migrate from Europe and the United States to China. In the early 2000s, our family left everything behind and emigrated from China to the United States. It had always been a dream of his to start a business like this — even though he was a prominent chemical engineer in China, he had nothing when he moved to the U.S., no job, no credentials. It was very difficult, which is why he felt that starting a new business using his own expertise was one of the few ways he could have a viable life. He had been talking to me about it for a while; he understood how to run a factory, how to build everything, and how to do research, but as an older immigrant, he was not well-versed in putting together a team and managing business relationships. I decided to come on board and help him so that I could become the person who manages that side of the business. 

The St. Louis innovation ecosystem, and Washington University in St. Louis in particular, was vital in helping you launch Vulpes Corp. How did the local startup community play a role in your success? 

We’ve had a lot of support from places like BioSTL and other organizations in the St. Louis startup scene, but it goes back even further than that. When I was in the doctoral program for PNP at Washington University, there was an understanding on the part of the university that it can be very hard for humanities PhDs to find jobs. The graduate school for humanities and Washington University’s Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship collaborated to help the humanities PhDs get work as interns at local startups. Skandalaris was very generous in providing the funding to pay interns so there was no cost to local startups. This is how my father and I met Greg Shapiro, who co-founded Vulpes Corp with us. There was this real recognition that, although we were trained in philosophy, our skills are transferable and can be useful in other industries. It really helped us make a connection, and it helped other PhDs go on to make connections in fields like technology and the nonprofit sector. 

A peek at the Vulpes Corp website.

You describe Vulpes Corp as having a significant impact on U.S. chemical manufacturing. Why is it such a disruptor? 

There are a few things to know about chemical manufacturing that are important. The first issue is a so-called “missing middle.” For example, the U.S. is one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the world, and we have the biggest consumer market in the world. Therefore, you would assume that a lot of the products made out of petrochemicals, such as plastics, should be made in the U.S. as well. But the reality is, most of the immediate or speciality petrochemicals are made in China and India. China is not a big oil producer, so they have to import massive amounts of oil to make specialty chemicals and then ship them back to the U.S. market. It’s a weird supply chain here; the middle is in China, but the raw materials and end users are here.

There are all kinds of supply chain risks with this. We’ve been through a global (health crisis) and understand how unreliable it is to rely on something 5,000 or 7,000 miles away. My dad wondered if we have the raw materials and the end users, can we do something about this middle. It turns out, we can. We founded Vulpes in 2018, and, with the support of the greater St. Louis innovation ecosystem, we started to do research to show that it is possible to not only make chemicals in the U.S., but at a level that is globally competitive, which means competitive in both price and quality.

A sneak peek inside Vulpes Corp's new Texas facility. Photos by Rick Shang.

You note that Vulpes’ work has positive implications for the environment. How so?

Being green is very important to us. Of course the first way we are having a positive impact is by reducing the carbon footprint associated with the supply chain. If products do not have to travel 5,000 or 7,000 miles to and from China or India, that reduces the energy associated with transportation.

However, there are two other situations where we consider ourselves much greener than companies in other countries. I don’t want to bash other countries, but (some countries have) very limited environmental enforcement, and they are able to supply their products to the U.S. at very competitive prices because they are able to hide the environmental impact, and U.S. customers don’t know what’s going on. (Adhering to) U.S. environmental enforcement (regulations) means we are inherently greener, but there is also another reason why we are more environmentally friendly: Both our product and processes are greener. What you often see in other countries is that products — due to design and lax manufacturing enforcement — incur a lot of environmentally hazardous impurities. A lot of chemicals we manufacture are improvements because we developed the greener versions of those products that are more pure, and we can remove pollutants from a product design perspective. For example, removing an inactive ingredient that is a pollutant, and replacing it with one that is not. 

Another thing we spend a lot of time and energy on is the waste stream. For example, in one of our products, the industry standard waste stream is salt, which means you release a high concentration of saltwater and it is very hard for water treatment plants to deal with it. We changed our manufacturing process so that our waste stream is potassium chloride rather than sodium chloride, which is salt. Potassium chloride is a liquid fertilizer important for agriculture, so we are no longer dealing with a difficult-to-treat saltwater byproduct but rather a product that people can use. 

Nanocarbon is another area in which you are delving into green technology, correct?

Yes. The way things work in agriculture is that if you apply fertilizer or water into the soil to grow crops, a significant amount of that is actually wasted — some research says up to 40 percent. This is a significant number, and there is a lot of research working on solving it, but the problem is that most of that is centered on making the nutrients more available in the soil. The issue with this is that just because it is available doesn’t mean the plant will actually use it.

What we do is based on the understanding that plants absorb carbon. The idea is that we create a nano-sized, carbon-based sponge that has all of these special features so that it will absorb nutrients and water. That means when plants take in carbon, they also take in nutrients and water, and instead of it being wasted, entering the water system and creating algae and other issues, it is now being used and absorbed. We have already published research papers and done commercial trials in more than 13 states, and in some cases we are able to improve nutrient intake by 100 percent. This means that everything that was wasted — and was a cost to farmers and a pollutant to the environment — is now being used efficiently by plants.

Vulpes Corp CEO Rick Shang poses in the SPACES co-working space in the Central West End.

You are also excited about Vulpes Corp’s work with semiconductors. What role does the company play in this vital industry?

The issue with the industry is that, with major federal investment, the U.S. has the physical infrastructure being built, and it is also figuring out how to source the raw materials (for semiconductors). What they haven’t figured out, though, are the specialty chemicals used in the semiconductor manufacturing process. That’s where we come in.

See, once you are done manufacturing semiconductors, you have to wash them clean with a specialty chemical that is very volatile and cannot be shipped over long distances. They can be shipped by tanker trucks across short distances, but they cannot be transported on a ship or on a plane because they could explode. We have one supplier here in the U.S., but they can’t keep up with demand, so we are excited to deliver those specialty chemicals to help meet the demand. Plus, we’ve come up with the only non-explosive chemical manufacturing process in the world, so we will be able to deliver this novel material to help fill in the gap. 

This isn’t something that is ready to go (at Vulpes Corp) yet because it is very expensive and takes a long time to create a clean room where these chemicals can be manufactured. However, we hope to have this completed in one or two years.

Now that you are six years into your business, how has Vulpes Corp been received by your clients?

Our clients are very grateful. Initially, they approach us solely because they need a U.S.-based supply chain. Price wasn’t the issue; they just needed a backup because of supply chain disruptions. Once they start working with us, they realize we can not only match, but undercut, (international) supplier’s prices. Not only is it a better price, it saves them so many headaches. This is what we are doing: building a platform that integrates products and material innovation with local manufacturing. We have good ideas, efficient operations, we bring jobs here, and we can do this while having a positive environmental impact.

Vulpes Corp CEO Rick Shang poses in the SPACES co-working space in the Central West End.

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