Artificial intelligence and biomaterials: the inspiration of the Atacama desert in creating products of global impact for the conservation of nature

Fundación Mar Adentro: You have had a career that crosses different disciplines: your undergraduate degree was in architecture, then your doctorate was in design and computing, and now you’re doing your post-doctorate in the faculty of chemical engineering. How did this need arise to combine different areas of knowledge and how does it translate into your current research?
Paloma González-Rojas: This need to combine different areas of knowledge is reflected in my career. It emerged because I like working with materials. I think I’ve never worked as an architect; I designed very little. I was much more involved in construction and operations, and spent some time teaching here at MIT. The truth is that it’s hard to combine different areas of knowledge; I’ve always had the idea that what doesn’t fit cannot be made to fit by force, you just have to take the good parts of each discipline and let everything flow to achieve a good solution. After the doctorate, it’s easier for me to see what I can take from each discipline in order to advance my projects. I think that having an architectural base helps me have a more open view of how to work with machine learning and understanding algorithms on a conceptual level, which allows me to evaluate what method to apply to each project in a different way. One of the great challenges of working with artificial intelligence is knowing what algorithm to use for each project. The diversity of knowledge I’ve acquired allows me to develop methods that solve some of the world’s most complex problems, such as molecular dynamics, from a unique perspective.

Is it normal for projects at MIT to be conceived from a transdisciplinary logic?
Yes, it is very common at MIT and the value of transdisciplinary logic is absolutely understood.

How is artificial intelligence helping the creation of new biomaterials?
Artificial intelligence has a few methods that have been recently developed as generative algorithms. By using these algorithms we can create new materials through the discovery of new chemical structures of synthetic or artificial origin. At Atacama, we used algorithms to predict the properties of the polymers that make up biomaterials, adapting them to the specific application we were searching for. For example, we are working on biomaterials for packaging and one of the most important properties here is the mechanical resistance to traction. This property changes depending on what type of materials are used and their proportions. Through artificial intelligence, we can take the data we have on the original materials and then predict the mechanical resistance of the new formulations, accelerating the development process of new materials.

How have your most important research processes begun? What inspired you to follow through with them?
Our company is called Atacama Biomaterials because the Atacama desert was the protagonist of two important moments to our business, which continue to inspire us. The first, in 2018, was when I was awarded an MIT grant to take students from MIT and Chile to the Atacama desert in order to research native materials and 3D printing. The 10-day trip allowed us to develop 3D printing applications for ceramics in projects that were very respectful with nature. This was very important for me and my career, because up until that point I had only wanted to develop software within MIT; I saw myself developing technologies for the architectural design process with artificial intelligence. But the trip reminded me that maybe technology isn’t enough for me, but also the impact of what I do on nature and people. So, ever since that trip, I began to take a different path and started to see myself as a developer of projects that have an impact on the world and that benefit the planet.
The second moment the Atacama desert had an important impact in my career was more recent, when we were developing the business and traveled to Chile with the co-founder of Atacama Biomaterials, José Tomás Domínguez. At that time there was a lot of news about the Atacama desert becoming a plastic dump, which was very hard for us and made us think about how to resolve the problem – so we named the company Atacama Biomaterials. This is what guides our vision and reminds us of how important it is to not only develop technology in general, but how this technology impacts our planet, people, our country and the rest of the world.

You are the CEO and one of the founders of Atacama Biomaterials, an artificial intelligence and robotics company whose purpose is to develop renewable materials for the circular economy, which was recently recognized as the most innovative company by MIT DesignX: What types of materials are you working with? And what have been the main challenges?
We are currently working with recycled wood pulp. One big challenge has been intellectual property, because the formula of our biomaterial is much more specific than just recycled wood pulp. Another challenge has been the development of intellectual property and its protection, for which we obtained a patent here in the United States and globally, and which was a lot of work. This patent was developed with the support of Danie Tsai, MIT Professor, the cofounders of Atacama Biomaterials (José Tomás Dominguez and José Antonio González), lawyers and also thanks to the support of DesignX and Sandbox Innovation Fund Program – MIT entrepreneurship programs that provided funds to develop the data and finance the patent. So there are many parties involved in the project. This is very important because in order to launch our biomaterials into the market, we want to protect our intellectual property.
Another challenge has been including the business vision within the objective of being a sustainable company through time, guided by our principles.

The use of biomaterials and research into avoiding polluting elements–such as petroleum by-products–is rapidly spreading into various productive sectors: How are innovations advancing in this regard?
Yes, these innovations are moving forward. I would say that we are at an important moment, but it’s difficult to enter very traditional, well-established markets, such as manufacturing. But I am seeing a change; interesting and unexpected things have happened to us. For example, a large US-based construction equipment company contacted us. One of their products (electric chainsaw) has a plastic cord, and they would like to change the petroleum-derived product in order to lower their environmental impact. There is a recent trend where large global corporations are changing their perspective on the subject, opening themselves up to biomaterials and reaching out to companies like ours to develop solutions for their products. They are looking for people who work in innovation and cutting-edge technology, but that aren’t yet part of established companies. This tells me that companies are much more open to these changes than one would think.

What do you hope to see in the near future regarding materials?
I dream of seeing, in the near future, a change of mentality in terms of materials. It’s not that I am against plastic, but I am against these types of materials in incorrect applications. It doesn’t seem right to have a material with a 2,000+ year lifespan being used in a product that will last two months. So I’d like to see a reevaluation of what are the best applications for the materials we currently have available, in order to move forward together in favor of the environment and of people. Not using plastic as packaging or for a tube that is only used for 20 minutes with an electric chainsaw, bags, or even clothes; that is, for uses that aren’t long-lasting. We hope to disrupt the materials market for the protection of the environment, with different types of products and at all levels; biomaterials with multiple applications that have a global impact. The biomaterial that we are developing simply didn’t exist before, and this increases our long-term ambitions. Other companies with the same principles are surely going to support us and will also be part of this force for change in the market, and for the benefit of the planet.


Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas

Paloma Gonzalez-Rojas is a developer of biomaterials based on artificial intelligence. Co-founder and CEO of the company Atacama Biomaterials, she has had a career that crosses various disciplines: an undergraduate degree in architecture (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile), a doctorate in design and computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a postdoctoral degree at the same university in chemical engineering. She currently creates renewable materials and develops technology to mitigate global warming. Her startup has been awarded by MIT and Harvard business accelerators, which have also contributed to strengthening her business development skills to break into the materials market and to build a global company that seeks to regenerate the Earth through renewable materials.