A new venture backed by billionaire Bill Gates is trying to make sure that “forever chemicals” don’t really last that long.

Allonnia LLC, which launched Thursday with US$40 million in Series A funding, is working to engineer microbes to get rid of pollutants in wastewater and soil. It’s starting with PFAS, an insidious class of chemicals that are widespread in U.S. drinking water and have otherwise proved resistant to breaking down, earning them the “forever” moniker.

“We have a waste problem in the world where a solution hasn’t been unlocked yet,” said Chief Executive Officer Nicole Richards, who joined the company from DuPont. “Allonnia is using biology, which is an untapped resource, where chemistry and materials have reached their limits in many cases.”

Allonnia launched out of the Ferment Consortium, a US$350 million investment vehicle intended to fund Ginkgo Bioworks Inc.’s spinout companies. It’s backed by Gates’ Cascade Investments, among other investors.

The effort comes at a time of renewed appreciation for what microbes -- be it a yeast or a coronavirus -- can do. Ginkgo and other companies are using them to create everything from cannabinoids to fake meat.

Targeted Solution

Allonnia, named after a now-extinct sea sponge that filtered the oceans in the Cambrian era, will “bioprospect” to find the right enzymes or microbes for specific challenges. The process isn’t fast: Richards said in an interview that it will likely be about two years before the spinoff is ready to pilot an effort in the natural world.

Starting with PFAS was appealing because the chemicals have proved so difficult and expensive to deal with, Richards said. The class of thousands of chemicals -- used to make products nonstick, waterproof or stain-resistant -- involve variations of carbon-fluorine bonds that didn’t exist in nature before companies like 3M Co., DuPont and Solvay started making them.

The substances, which don’t break down over time, now show up in drinking water and people’s blood, and have been linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer and weakened immune response. Allonnia’s potential solution, Richards said, “cleaves to the carbon-fluorine bond to destroy it.”

Battelle Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit that does national security and health work, is also an investor and partner in Allonnia. Gates’ Cascade, along with Viking Global Investors and General Atlantic, will have a stake in the new company. Allonnia declined to detail the sizes of each investor’s holding.