• Dipl.-Ing. Sonja Jost, CEO DexLeChem

    Dipl.-Ing. Sonja Jost, Technische Universität Berlin/DexLeChem

Brain City Ambassador Sonja Jost studied industrial engineering with a focus on technical chemistry at the Technische Universität Berlin. At the beginning of 2013, she dared to take the plunge from the university into self-employment – and successfully founded the start-up DexLeChem together with three other partners. Her aims: To improve production processes in the chemical industry by means of innovative approaches in the field of green chemistry.

“I want to change things. When I see that it’s possible to produce things more ecologically while saving costs, I am not going to just sit back and do nothing. I am not the type of person to just wait and see,” says Sonja Jost. The history of her company shows that the Brain City ambassador successfully gets involved. After studying industrial engineering with a focus on technical chemistry at the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin), she founded the chemical start-up DexLeChem together with two fellow students and a mentor from a project of the Unifying Concepts in Catalysis (UniCat) Cluster of Excellence at TU Berlin. The basic product of the young company: a process with which complex chemicals can be produced in water instead of expensive petroleum-based organic solvents. “That was not possible before because you had to use certain complex, homogeneous catalysts that could not be used in water,” explains Sonja Jost. I had discovered how the catalysts can be reactivated in water. The special thing about the process: It is environmentally friendly and resource-friendly, because in contrast to petroleum-based processes, the catalysts in water-based processes can be gently separated from the product and used several times. This saves up to 82% in costs.  

The start was not easy for the young company. “At that time there were only a few chemical start-ups in Germany. And everyone who we told about our idea advised us against it.” However, Sonja Jost and her team believed in their idea. They found support at the university. “In the first year, we were still able to use the facilities at TU Berlin. We only managed to do that back then because two professors helped us. We were also very fortunate to receive the third-party funding program EXIST research transfer from Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy. This is the big brother of the start-up grants, so to speak. Very few teams receive this funding. There were around 30 projects throughout Germany each year. If a chemical start-up was involved, it was a big deal. At the same time, it shows that there is a great need in this area.”

It took the DexLeChem team around one and a half years to win over their first customer. “We went to trade fairs and nobody took us seriously. That is why we became more publicly communicative, because chemical change is essential. In chemical research, almost all products and production processes are still based on finite resources such as crude oil/natural gas. These resources will eventually disappear. We offer manufacturers a green alternative.” Up to now, the start-up has successfully established itself in the market and offers its customers additional solutions and services in the field of green chemistry and digitisation. They now have customers in eight European countries and the USA, and the demand is steadily increasing. 

DexLeChem is still well connected to the science scene in Brain City Berlin, as Sonja Jost confirms. “The proximity to science in Berlin is very important to us. We are still working closely with the Cluster of Excellence at TU Berlin. There were and still are close connections with professors from the Humboldt– Universität zu Berlin (HU Berlin) and the Freie Universität Berlin (FU Berlin) Berlin as well as various Universities of Applied Sciences. Bringing new knowledge from science to the market is very important to us. We are therefore always open to cooperation. That is the great thing about Berlin: We have outstanding science and a great scientific start-up scene. The mix here works well! 

Does she have a tip for young researchers who want to start their own business? “Many find themselves initially standing in front of a mountain without knowing how to approach the whole thing. My tip would be to write to companies that have been on the market for a few years and ask whether they might be able to give some advice,” says Sonja Jost and adds helpfully: “That could be DexLeChem - in the chemical sector we are very happy to do it. In the natural science sector, there are also many successful entrepreneurs who are happy to provide support and advice. 

That is the great thing about Berlin: We have outstanding science and a great scientific start-up scene. The mix here works well!

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