One year later for C180’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence fellowship

What does it take to found a carbon removal startup?

by Peter Minor, EIR fellowship manager

After one year, seven carbon removal business plans, several company launches, more than ten technical jobs created, and thousands of tons of CO2 pulled from the atmosphere, the Carbon180 Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) fellowship has come to a close.

When we first conceived of a carbon removal entrepreneur fellowship two years ago, the field was nothing like the burgeoning landscape we see grabbing headlines and big checks today. But we could envision how an explosion of new CDR innovation would supercharge our policy efforts, signaling to the federal government the formation of a new industry and inspiring bolder policies and incentives. I met frequently with entrepreneurs from traditional tech backgrounds like software and biology, now interested in pursuing carbon removal ventures, and knew our idea might be difficult — but possible and promising. So, in late 2019, we selected seven entrepreneurs with no experience in CDR but with a strong determination to build the necessary climate solutions that will bring us closer to full-scale carbon removal.

The results of this fellowship were beyond our expectations, including more than $5 million raised from top climate investors and the launches of two key startups in the field, CarbonPlan and Heirloom. Alongside these successes, we were able to use the last year to identify how entrepreneurs in carbon removal can build early momentum and maximize their opportunity to make a meaningful impact on efforts to address climate change.

Here’s what we learned — and below, hear from the entrepreneurs themselves.

Establish strong connections to scientific expertise

Building CDR solutions based on sound science is a surprisingly challenging requirement given the industry’s rapid pace of innovation and remaining scientific uncertainty. The reduced latency of an “on-call” expert leads to accelerated learning cycles in an emerging field like carbon removal.

Key learning: Start recruiting scientific advisors and supporters from day one. Find innovation programs that can help you make these connections.

Build the right minimum viable product (MVP)

Like any startup, early efforts should focus on conducting detailed customer research, building a high-fidelity (but lab-scale) prototype, and recruiting a world-class team. But if you want to really stand out as a CDR entrepreneur, constructing robust techno economic and life cycle models are a great way to build confidence and reduce perceived risk with investors and partners.

Key learning: The carbon removal MVP is a combination of convincing techno economic assessments, life cycle analyses, and a lab-scale tech demo.

Find the right early customers

Forward-thinking corporates have emerged as the first significant customers for carbon removal, with Stripe, Shopify and Microsoft leading large purchases of voluntary CDR offsets. Many of these companies have assembled sophisticated and transparent programs for vetting and selecting CDR offsets to support — winning the support of one of these innovative corporate buyers can quickly elevate a CDR startup above the rest of the field.

Key learning: For now, landing a prominent first customer will likely have a bigger impact on a startup’s trajectory than signing a prominent early investor.

We need all hands on deck

Carbon removal is an inherently multidisciplinary problem and CDR-specific expertise is not a necessary ingredient to build a world-changing climate solution — what’s required is a willingness to start building, resilience in the face of setbacks, and a deep passion for fighting climate change.

Key learning: The “correct path” to gigaton-scale removals is unknown — if you want to be a part of the movement, you can be. There really isn’t anything standing in your way.

Next up for us: a new entrepreneurship model capable of supporting hundreds of CDR entrepreneurs per year, up from just seven we worked with in 2020. Right now we’re deep in research and framework building — if successful, the outcome of these efforts will be a first-class innovation network producing entrepreneurs to help build the carbon removal industry.

And now, I’ll hand the mic over to our fellows, incredible folks without whom none of the above insights would have been possible. Read on to learn more about their experience and what comes next for all of them.

Aaron Fitzgerald, CEO of Mars Materials

What are the biggest opportunities in carbon removal that make you the most excited?

I believe sequestering captured CO2 in long-term durable products (known as carbontech) will be game changing for the carbon removal industry. I’m personally excited about storing CO2 in carbon fibers, a critical tool for global decarbonization efforts.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs interested in getting into carbon removal?

As an industry, carbon removal aligns business success with the planet’s habitability. Today, there are more opportunities in carbon removal than there are entrepreneurs — so just jump in. Start by recruiting a diverse team to actualize your solution.

How can we continue to follow your journey?

I’m working to sequester captured CO2 in lower-cost, same-quality carbon fiber. Reach out to me to learn more via Twitter.

Andy Moon, strategy and innovation leader

What are the biggest opportunities in carbon removal that make you the most excited?

I think the biggest opportunity in all of climate change is to win broad public support to take bold action on climate. The only chance we have to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius is through a people-powered movement that persuades governments to set (and keep) ambitious climate policies.

What are unique challenges of starting a company in carbon removal?

Carbon removal businesses often require scientific breakthroughs, changes in government policies (e.g., carbon pricing), or both. Entrepreneurship in carbon removal requires passionate, patient, and risk-loving entrepreneurs who are willing to take a very long-term view.

What’s next for you?

I will be advising a few companies focused on decarbonization, and will be announcing my next steps shortly. Follow my journey on Twitter or my website!

Jannice Newson, co-founder of Lillian Augusta

What are some of the unique challenges of building carbon utilization products?

Some challenges are conveying the carbon removal goal to the general public who may not be as familiar with the concept of carbon removal. Education is important in these ventures so the climate impact is understood.

What resources would you recommend for entrepreneurs entering the carbon removal industry?

I recommend joining climate-tech and carbon removal communities. There are Slack channels, Clubhouse clubs, newsletters, and other virtual gatherings of like-minded individuals that can assist you in your journey.

How can we continue to follow your journey?

Check out our website! And please be sure to follow our company, Lillian Augusta, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Jeremy Freeman, executive director of CarbonPlan

What are the key challenges that carbon removal needs to solve to reach scale?

Our carbon removal solutions need to respect science and support just outcomes, and we no longer have time for approaches that don’t work. We need an ecosystem built on transparency and scientific integrity, and CarbonPlan is committed to helping achieve that.

What resources would you recommend for entrepreneurs entering the carbon removal industry?

The CDR Primer is a fantastic resource for learning the fundamentals of carbon removal — why we need it, how it works in all its various forms, and where big challenges still exist. It reflects more than two years of thoughtful work and collaboration among dozens of authors from across the field.

How can we continue to follow your journey?

Follow our work at carbonplan.org and look for announcements on Twitter. You can also find me @thefreemanlab — reach out anytime!

Kristin Ellis, founder of stealth bio-climate startup

What are the key challenges that carbon removal needs to solve to reach scale?

We need more bold ideas and the willingness to invest in new technologies that might fail. More open and cross-disciplinary collaboration and less emphasis on outsized returns, locking down IP, or finding a silver bullet. Also — policies, regulations, and incentives to reduce the cost per ton of carbon removed and empower more people to enter the market.

What are the opportunities for biology to impact the carbon removal field?

I’m most excited about the potential of using engineered enzymes and/or microbes to catalyze existing efforts like enhanced rock weathering, subsurface mineralization, and direct air capture. Separately, but using some of the same principles, biomineralization processes could be carried out in industrial bioreactors, creating carbonate minerals as carbon credits or construction inputs.

There’s also (giga)tons of potential to use the productive capacity of industrial biology to make fuels, chemicals, materials, and products we all love from renewable biomass or engineered microbes.

What’s next for you?

Collaborating with lots of people both in the MIT Climate Grand Challenges and the Open Air Collective, and hopefully launching a company in the next year (stay tuned)! Find me on Twitter or email hello@kristin.earth. Door’s always open :)

Nana Britwum, co-founder of Lillian Augusta

What are some of the unique challenges of building carbon utilization products?

Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster whether it comes to sourcing raw materials or making strategic partnerships. I would encourage entrepreneurs to focus on solving the problem at hand — the more you focus on solving the problem, the less attached you get to a specific solution.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs interested in getting into carbon removal?

Now is an exciting time to be in carbon removal! We get the privilege of not only creating the foundation for this space but also setting the tone for all who will be included.

How can we continue to follow your journey?

Check out our website! And please be sure to follow our company, Lillian Augusta Hair, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Shashank Samala, CEO of Heirloom

How can entrepreneurs help the carbon removal industry reach gigaton scale?

Innovators can help build scalable, high-quality permanent, “no compromises” carbon removal approaches — fast. Previous innovation engines of the 1800s and 1900s resulted in emissions-intensive combustion engines, concrete production, agriculture practices, and many more. The resulting industries are so powerful and so massive that only new innovations can reverse that tide.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs interested in getting into carbon removal?

Focus on building extensive and robust techno economic and lifecycle analyses to ensure your approach checks out from every angle. The foundational principles of building a great product or business carry over to carbon removal tech: customer focus mindset, building a great culture, fast technology iteration cycles, etc.

What’s next for you?

Building and scaling Heirloom, a low-cost direct air capture approach via mineralization. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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