Tammy Hsu’s Success Story: From High School Robotics to Creating the World’s Most Sustainable Denim Dyes
By: Sana Parija, Iris Hsu, and Niharika Jadeja
Benzene. Formaldehyde. Sodamide. Combating the usage of these toxic and highly polluting chemicals used in conventional indigo blue production is Tammy Hsu, PhD, Co-Founder and CSO of Huue, where the world’s most sustainable dyes are being produced using biotechnology. With the desire for her work to reach a wide audience, Dr. Hsu pursued the environmental space, where she believes “one solution can have a big impact on tons of people.”
Sitting down with Tammy Hsu, PhD, the Co-Founder and CSO of Huue, a biotechnology company creating sustainable indigo dyes for denim, we learned about her experiences in the entrepreneurship space.
Currently working to create the world’s most sustainable dyes at biotechnology company Huue, Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) Tammy Hsu, PhD, started her journey in STEM at an early age. Growing up, she was always interested in math and science, and participated in engineering extracurriculars, including high school robotics. In this sense, pursuing STEM was the most natural path to follow. Although she initially leaned towards Chemistry or Chemical Engineering, learning about stem cells and protein engineering led her to pursue both her BS and PhD in Bioengineering at Stanford University and UC Berkeley, respectively.
Dr. Hsu credits her experience in the Dueber Lab at UC Berkeley, where discussions of biotech industry innovations were frequent, for bringing about her entrepreneurial mindset. As a participant of the Bakar Innovation Fellows Program, an entrepreneurship program for graduate and postdoctoral students interested in translating their research to industry, Dr. Hsu found hearing about the projects of other Fellows and attending various seminars to be helpful. Through this program, she was able to learn about patent strategy and get introduced to incubator programs such as CITRIS Foundry and those at SkyDeck.
Post-graduation and en-route to starting her company based on the sustainable indigo dyeing research she conducted in the Dueber Lab, she found value in working with a partner from a completely different background. Through a friend, she came into contact with Michelle Zhu, Co-Founder and CEO of Huue. While Dr. Zhu brought the business expertise, Dr. Hsu brought the science and technical process knowledge.
Although the company started out with limited funding, and as Dr. Hsu stated, “[having a] small company meant less stability,” the Co-Founders used their “mental grit” and persevered. After being accepted into the IndieBio accelerator program, which provided them funding and lab space, they also received funding from many other sources: Jamie Cate, PhD, and Jennifer Doudna, PhD, an SBIR grant, venture capital sources, and the Female Founders Competition.
As a company in the biotechnology space, Huue utilizes microbial fermentation of engineered microbes to produce dyes and colorants. Since formally starting two years ago, the company has been working on their first product of indigo (to be used in denim), which is currently made very unsustainably through the use of petroleum and toxic chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, and sodamide. Without using these harsh and corrosive substances, Huue’s effective and easy-to-implement dyes are five times less toxic, enabling the dyeing process to be less polluting and more environmentally friendly.
With just a team of two in the beginning, Dr. Hsu wore many hats — from developing the overall fermentation and strain development processes to engaging in fundraising conversations with investors and brands. Having grown the company in the past two years, Dr. Hsu now focuses on managing her team of scientists and research associates, and works with external partners to better develop their processes.
While “it’s not trivial to turn stinky fermentation broth into sustainable dyes,” Dr. Hsu finds it very exciting when an experiment works. Having team members collectively interested in starting from scratch produces a more thriving environment, and being able to talk with her team is her favorite part of working at Huue. Compared to graduate school where everyone has a similar background and is working on their own project, at Huue, everyone brings a diverse experience — “looking at the exact same problem at different angles.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted Huue’s day-to-day, Dr. Hsu has realized that in addition to conducting experiments daily to make progress, thorough readings of scholarly articles, detailing the research and variability of processes, and writing rigorous experimental plans is very important in creating applicable and recreatable data. In the near future, Huue hopes to continue scaling-up the indigo process and grow their team, while long-run applications include supplying an expanded palette of high quality dyes for the textile industry and exploring new ways to use dyes, such as food coloring.
Dr. Hsu encourages undergraduate and graduate students looking to pursue entrepreneurship to not be intimidated by those who came before. She sees a great significance in networking and making friends throughout the entrepreneurship process — with peers at a similar stage, entrepreneurs a couple years ahead, and even those thirty years into their journey.
“Entrepreneurship sounds very lofty and intimidating, but everything is one step at a time.”
Outside of Huue, Dr. Hsu enjoys running and learning new languages. More information about Huue can be found at https://www.huue.bio/ or through social media @huuebio (LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter).