Building with Bamboo

Brilliant chat with Troy Carter, Co-Founder of Rizome, a company that converts bamboo into a cutting edge, decarbonizing building material. We discussed the goals of the Rizome team, the amazing properties of bamboo and why it has taken so long to scale as a major building material, the possibility of bamboo skyscrapers, the importance of building a fully integrated supply chain when scaling a product like bamboo, why bamboo makes a great candidate for carbon offsets, the work-life balance of the tech community in Hawaii and more!

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: What drove the initial decision to start Rizome? Was decarbonization the end goal, or was it you have found this amazing material that was bamboo, and you’re looking basically for an application of bamboo and decarbonisation was a nice side effect?

CARTER: It was both; the climate crisis is the biggest theme of the century, at least so far. And bamboo has a particularly unique role to play because it grows so fast. And it also grows in equatorial regions and the global south, in places where there’s been massive deforestation. Climate equity is a real issue. Our team has been working in bamboo for a long time. David, one of our co founders has been one of the foremost bamboo architects for the last 26 years. And we have a pretty amazing team of people from diverse industries from aerospace manufacturing to running some of the largest energy companies in the US to software development. And our team came together to say, what is the biggest climate impact we can have? What are the technologies we need to implement?
And bamboo is just a super scalable future building material that over the next 10 years will be seen as the obvious next major construction material.

MCWALTER: What are the advantages of bamboo as a building material? 

CARTER: It’s technically a superior material to wood. It’s super strong, at least two and a half times as strong as Douglas Fir. It’s very fire resistant so it’s got a class A fire rating. So that solves two major problems in construction, which is strength and fire resistance. And it’s also quite cheap, it grows really fast. And so at our next scale of manufacturing, it’ll actually be cheaper than comparable structural wood. And that’s a big deal. We don’t want to have to make a developer choose between a technically superior material that’s regenerative and something, that’s really expensive. So, bamboo is technically superior, the same price or cheaper, very strong, better fire resistance that’s all on the technical side. And on the regenerative sustainability side, it grows super fast, sequesters 10 times as much carbon as trees, and has really great effects on water, soil health. It’s also an annual crop so that our local partners in local indigenous communities can actually have an annual crop rather than waiting 40 years for forestry projects to come online.

MCWALTER: So why do you think it has been underutilized? 

CARTER: Broadly speaking due to supply chain reliability. Historically, in the US and Canada, there’re a lot of trees and we actually do a pretty good job at harvesting them sustainably. 100 years ago, you could cut up a Douglas Fir for super cheap and they were big trees, we got them all down. That’s really no longer the case. Our tree age has been getting younger and younger, even in the US. So there’s more and more softwood internationally. You go to India, Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, there are no trees left. And I can’t overstate this. It’s not that there’s just logging moratoriums, you simply can’t find the trees. So if all the new buildings that will be built in India, in Indonesia, in Bangladesh, if all those buildings are built with steel and concrete, we’re going to hit some major climate thresholds that we don’t want to hit. So we need an alternative. And we can’t plant trees in these areas quickly enough to actually make them a viable construction material. Bamboo is really the scalable solution that will grow very quickly. And right now we’re pioneering a manufacturing model. There’s just never been the level of sophistication in technology brought to bamboo. We’re also using a species of bamboo that’s a much larger store  which pushes costs a lot lower. And there’s never been a supply of this bamboo that’s been large enough to actually scale a major industry around. And broadly, if a developer is building a $2 billion building, they want to be able to guarantee that the materials will arrive on time. And that’s just never been the case with bamboo.

MCWALTER: If the supply chain has been such a blocker in the past, have you had to vertically integrate across the entire supply chain? Or have you just found really good partners all along the way?

CARTER: We’re doing everything and also making really good partners. From planting, to processing, to final step manufacturing, and sales, we need to innovate at every level. We’re also the first company doing very detailed data tracking. That’s from everything from plant genetics to basic supply chain data to tracking things like how long does it take to get from the clump to the truck and from the truck to the factory, and through each machine line? It’s just a level of data tracking that hasn’t been done before in this industry.

MCWALTER: What scale are you currently at?

CARTER: I would say we’re at version 0.1. And with the next funding round that we’re doing in a couple months, we’ll go to version 1. And version one is about $17 million revenue per year per plant. And that’s a replicable model that will be able to be copied in other places of the world. So we’d love to go to Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, and India and provide a replicable model so this industry can really take off.

MCWALTER: What form does your main bamboo product take? 

CARTER: Our primary unit right now we call slats, and this is when you take a round pole of bamboo and you cut some rectangles out of it. And these rectangles are 10 feet long. These small boards we then laminate together into panels or other engineered wood products, and one of the processing facilities we are building would make about 20 million panels per year. 

MCWALTER: What types of things could be built with these panels?

CARTER: We’ve already said that bamboo is a really technically great material with great fire resistance and strength and also durability. And also aesthetics, it looks great, and you can have exposed beams because of the fire resistance. Where we want to go and where our end goal is, is in large scale structural materials. And so right now we make panels. This is the plywood. This is the thing for walls for flooring for underlayment, stuff like that. In the long term, more and more architects and designers will be building for the material, which means a movement towards panel based construction versus stick construction, for example, studless walls, reduced CLT member size because of the strength characteristics, exposed beams because of the fire resistance, it solves a few major issues in mass timber design. And so we can imagine everything from skyscrapers to residential houses being built with bamboo.

MCWALTER: Skyscrapers? That’s interesting, is the technology there to build, let’s say something like a skyscraper from bamboo today?

CARTER: We’re still waiting on a few things. So one, I would say that the academic and testing side is mostly there. But there you know, there’s still code compliance, it’s going to be another two years and half a million dollars for us to actually be able to go build a skyscraper on the compliance side.

MCWALTER: That’s pretty quick. On the code and compliance, how have you found working with regulatory bodies?

CARTER: You don’t want to dis regulatory bodies, they do a great job. They ensure the safety and longevity of buildings. And there’s such a big movement right now towards low embodied carbon construction. You look at the bill that was just put in the House of Representatives a couple weeks ago for netzero construction. You look at any architectural magazine coming out, it’s all about low embodied carbon or net zero buildings, and that’s a trend that will continue. So on the regulation side, we’re seeing a lot of support. People want these materials, there’s going to be a major move towards more mass timber, and bamboo in particular, as a next wave of material that’s coming. So we actually see a lot of support and people very willing and excited to work with us.

MCWALTER: Who are your primary customers? 

CARTER: This is a B2B business, at least at the moment. In the short term, we are selling to high value customers, which means they’re using the material as a hardwood replacement for cabinets and flooring, and that goes to wood distributors. We’re currently taking contracts for our next manufacturing facility and these are wood distributors, but also lumber companies, particularly in the Pacific Northwest who want to make bamboo wood hybrid products. Also, flooring manufacturing companies who want to do hybrid products. And, even conventional big retailers who maybe want to sell to consumers, but we’re not not selling directly to consumers at the moment. 

MCWALTER: Can the bamboo plantations be part of carbon offsets?

CARTER: That is a whole other category of the business. We’re manufacturing bamboo lumber, and we’re planting bamboo for agroforestry, and also native forest. And when we’re planting forest and doing bamboo agroforestry, we can generate a lot of very high quality carbon offsets with holistic benefits. Our goal is to be doing 50,000 hectares a year of planting by 2024. That’s a pretty doable goal. It’s pretty fast and easy to scale planting. It’s pretty hard to scale manufacturing. And so yes, we are selling carbon offsets. Right now we’re selling through brokers. And hopefully soon we’ll also be selling directly to industry partners or people who want to set their company up to offset their emissions. Incorporating bamboo agroforestry makes it profitable from a carbon offset side rather than just covering costs. There’s a lot of new investment models that are possible once it’s actually profitable.

MCWALTER: Thinking about the indigenous groups in the Philippines you work with, what did the initial conversations look like? Because often those groups have been by outside businesses coming in. What was your approach to building relationships with that community?

CARTER: We’ve been in conversation with groups in the Philippines for about four years now, we really only started implementing planting this year and, and manufacturing this year. So it’s been a long time relationship building. And that’s about establishing trust that’s making relationships. And now I think we’ve finally worked out a model where everyone is incentivized in a way that’s healthy for the planet, healthy for the communities and actually provides a regenerative building material to the global market. But it’s been a long journey, and it does, you’re right, it’s a careful and paced way of doing business.

MCWALTER: Where do you see Rizome in about 10 years time?

CARTER: If right now we’re going from version 0.1 to 1.0, over the next 10 years we’re going from model 1 to model 100. And this isn’t necessarily technical innovation. It’s just replicating the same thing over and over in new regions. And that’s a 500 hectare bamboo plantation surrounded by native forest, a processing facility that harvests that area, and then a regional lamination facility that makes final finished goods for the local or global construction market. By 2050, we have the internal goal of sequestering 10 gigatons of carbon. That’s a pretty ambitious goal. That means we need to be in a lot of different countries, a lot of different regions, producing a lot of material, but also planting quite a lot. You know, that’s planting probably 2 million Hector’s of bamboo and native forest.

MCWALTER: Just get a sense of the scale of 50 gigatons of carbon?

CARTER: 50 gigatons of carbon dioxide drawdown is about 1% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions. 

MCWALTER: What do you think about Fortune500 companies making supply chain decarbonisation pledges?

CARTER: I think it’s amazing that major companies are making decarbonisation pledges. This is one of the points of collaboration where Rizome and other companies doing reforestation can collaborate directly. So the carbon offset market hasn’t been super effective over the past 20 years. And one of the reasons is it’s mostly avoided emissions rather than actually taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it in the ground or into durable goods. And so what we are seeing more and more is a bifurcation in the carbon market where there are avoided emissions and then there are sequestration solutions using plants or direct air capture. For example, where the co2 is taken from the air and put into a durable form, and then there are getting paid for storage solutions, which means, you know, biochar or building materials actually just storing the carbon in a form that is durable. And what our solution is, is a very high quality, easily trackable and measurable system for extracting co2 from the atmosphere and putting it in buildings and in the ground. So let’s partner on carbon offsets. Let’s partner on reforestation. And let’s build all the new buildings out of regenerative building materials.

MCWALTER: One of the critiques of carbon offsets has been the double counting problem – what are your thoughts on tracking carbon in a way to avoid double counting?

CARTER: We track everything. We have a unique identifier for every clump of bamboo that we plant and harvest that allows us to get very precise data on how much co2 is being sequestered, where it goes in the manufacturing process from into a building material or back into the ground. This is something that hasn’t been done before. Historically the flow of carbon accounting in forests and industries is pretty nebulous. This is something that needs to change and something that we’re changing in terms of carbon offset quality. Right now we track with a geotag. In the future, we might do RFID or something similar.

MCWALTER: Whether it’s with Project Drawdown or some other framework, are there any like really large decarbonisation problems no one seems to be tackling at all?

CARTER: Yes, there are. I don’t want to go out too much on a limb there. There are some really big areas and more than that almost anyone can become an expert in one of these categories in six months to a year. Because there are so many new opportunities, if you think of ocean co2 and kelp farming and low co2 concrete and renewable energy systems. And particularly financial vehicles for financing all of these operations, there are so many areas that need work, that it doesn’t require a huge step of technological innovation. The technology exists to address climate and to adjust ecological restoration. It’s mostly a financial issue that affects the speed of scaling. So one of the areas that I’m most excited by right now is new models for financing reforestation, if we can actually create an investable product that incentivizes living on a beautiful, natural biodiverse planet. Great, let’s go make money by reforesting the earth. And I think that’s possible, particularly incorporating bamboo agroforestry. 

MCWALTER: I believe you’re based in Hawaii. What are your thoughts on the local tech scene in Hawaii?

CARTER: With COVID right now, there’s a bit of an exodus happening from cities as people more and more realize that work can go online. I started a business in San Francisco a handful of years ago, ran it for a few years and sold it. And during that time, I worked really hard and worked in a way that was unbalanced. Like very, very progress oriented. And there is something about working in a region like Hawaii where a sense of lifestyle balance and nature connection is more at the forefront. If people are happy and living balanced lives they are just inherently more creative. I really admire when some companies have gone to four day workweeks, and that doesn’t actually decrease the level of productivity and actually gives people more. More enthusiasm to work on something for a really long time. Because, we’re going to be doing this for decades, and we’re assembling a team of World Class implementers and thinkers and finance people and lumber technologists and plant biologists. We want to be engaged with this team for a really long time and have everyone’s needs fully met. And that’s a lot less easy in an area where people will face burnout a couple years down the road.

MCWALTER: You mentioned a business that you were involved in, Troy cider?

CARTER: Yes, back in the day I started a cider company. At that time, there was no cider made on the west coast in the US. And so it was one of the original cider companies. It grew super quickly, because it occupied a niche in the market. And it was fun, you on a purely lifestyle basis. It was an amazing business to be a part of, and in the end, it was really profitable, and set me up for a level of freedom and exploration where I could give my energy to projects very freely without being concerned by money. And for anyone interested in going into climate or, or another area that probably does take a lot of research. So to start in this area maybe you don’t know what you want to work on necessarily, so maybe it’s six months or a year of volunteering at companies or doing consulting projects to get the income to make the jump. And so working on that also gave me the freedom to experiment a lot over the last few years.

Energy and Data Silos

Brilliant chat with Colin Gounden, CEO of VIA, a company that uses machine learning to enable encrypted analysis of confidential data at large energy companies. We discussed the comparative advantage of the VIA founding team,  the way VIA solves for the data siloing issue which so many machine learning projects suffer from, how they solved for slow enterprise sales cycle with the “30 minute pilot”, how growing up in multiple countries affects your perspective, why energy efficiency of everyday appliances is a massive opportunity for cleantech founders, how they hire for their company value of “love in:love out” and more!

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: What would you say was the comparative advantage of the initial founding team?

GOUNDEN: I think familiarity plays a big part. Some of us have known each other for 10-20 years so there’s some advantages just in terms of direct communication. You can have very direct conversations,  there’s no beating around the bush, there’s no kind of like mincing words, and you get a lot of stuff done a lot faster that way. Also, we tend to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and have been able to say, Hey, this is my weakness, this is not my area of strength, and I could really use some help here. And sometimes, in other founders, some groups find it hard to admit weakness.

MCWALTER: Thinking back to those early days, what were the first 3-6 months like?

GOUNDEN: Lots has changed since that period. In the early days, we were really focused in the area of machine learning and AI to solve problems in the energy space. We actually started by working with regulators. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was one of our first customers. And I would say in total transparency, it was less about the software and more about solving the problem. It looked a little bit more like a consulting company with software, figuring out what software was the right software to solve these kinds of problems. And certainly, I think even today still, but in 2016 certainly, AI was very much in a custom mode and it needed a lot of hand holding. So the first three to six months in addition to working with some customers like regulators, there was also a lot of client conversations. We had a good CRM tracking system. Jackie Finn runs our marketing group and she was very insistent about us having a really good tracking system. So I think we did over 400 customer interviews in the first year. So a lot of it was just customer discovery, just understanding what the market needs and doing some paid work along the way.

MCWALTER: And what is an example of how VIA solves problems for utilities? 

GOUNDEN: For example, we have a large European utility, who have petabytes of data. And they want good in-house data science people, but it’s actually really hard to attract certain skill sets to the utility industry and you see this a lot; they have six open positions and only one filled. And because they cannot often get the people in-house, they would like to make a choice of packaging the data in order to work with academics or consulting firms or maybe even general data scientists. In an ideal world, that would be great. But of course, there’s lots of confidentiality issues and so they cannot just send that data out. Instead of getting access to the data directly VIA enables third party data scientists to write up queries in Python and basically send that to wherever the data is, it runs there and results get returned. And we have a bunch of checks and balances to make sure the code you’re writing isn’t going to steal something,and the results that are getting sent back aren’t revealing too much. There’s also an audit element to make sure the utility knows who’s doing what when, and with what data. This solves for the privacy concern while giving utilities access to amazing data science talent. 

MCWALTER: One of the big common problems with machine learning and those kinds of ventures is data siloing. What are your thoughts on that?

GOUNDEN: We have one customer who said they have two divisions, one in mainland Europe, and one in that In the United Kingdom, and they said it takes nine months to transfer the data from one unit to another. Mary, Queen of Scots did not take so long. It’s all these regulatory concerns that’s actually blocking that transfer of data. Our goal is that they could learn from each other without having to physically send their data. That is one of the problems VIA is solving. 

MCWALTER: When a client shows an interest what is the typical kind of timeline to get a client up to the point where they’re getting real value? I imagine these jobs in general are just moving pretty slowly?

GOUNDEN: So we launched something in 2018, called the 30 minute pilot. And we thought this is kind of an industry first because so many pilots, prototypes and demos take too long. And so literally we said, well, what would it take? Let’s think about this differently. What would it take to get real data, real results in 30 minutes? So we created an environment to do that. And actually,it only takes three or four minutes to load and the other 27 minutes, is getting people comfortable with the idea that they have to go collect a little tiny piece of data on their own by digging around their files. So that’s why it totals 30. Also, we have a pilot we offer where for transformers for example, if the client is interested in benchmarking their transformer performance against the hundreds or thousands of transformer readings we have in our database without having to actually physically combine your data. So we can do that in a 30 minute process. 

MCWALTER: With COVID a lot of companies moved from an office, or multi office kind of model to something fully remote, what did that transition look like for VIA?

GOUNDEN: Our VP of product the other day, he mentioned we seem to be more productive than, in a way and I said, that’s probably because, One, no one’s on vacation, Two, thankfully no one’s sick  and Three, no one has any distractions or other things to do. So that trifecta means you will likely get a big bump in productivity over the few months while people have been working remote. I do think it takes work to get that to be efficient. So I’d say we learned a lot of tactical things for example, all meetings start on time. And you see people actually show up one minute early because that’s important and video is essential. And, in our Slack channel, everybody logs into the morning and says welcome and everybody says goodnight at the end of the day and that’s an important part. So there are little things that help the culture stays cohesive and I think that that takes a little bit of work. There’s also the little things like virtual pub night and trivia night.

MCWALTER: What are your thoughts on the opportunities for founders in a world that targets 100% electrification?

GOUNDEN: Because I come from the world of data analytics I have a bias which is in a world of complete electrification it means a world where we can optimize power consumption. We can learn from each other about how power consumption varies in the world. In Japan everything consumes gigantic amounts of power, the televisions, the rice cookers, the refrigerators. And if you go somewhere else, like Kenya or parts of India it turns out because power is expensive the exact same 27 inch television does not use the same amount of power in Kenya or India as it does in Japan. And so what are the opportunities for an entrepreneur? It’s saying, “Well, how do I take everyday items and make them low power? Because that helps everybody. So pick your favorite object that you know well and that can be air conditioning or rice cookers or refrigerators or dishwashers or  cell phone chargers or whatever it is and ask how do I make that charge faster, smarter and with low power consumption? There’s hundreds of opportunities like that. 

MCWALTER: What are your thoughts on like the increased risk from cyberattacks in a more and more connected kind of power grid?

GOUNDEN: Unfortunately, that’s increasing as an issue. You once had a house with a door and a lock, and now you’ve got thousands of windows, and it’s easier to break in.  One infamous example of a retailer who had a big breach of credit cards happen by someone hacking in through an air conditioner unit. So I think that’s a real concern.The thing to do is not just depend on cybersecurity to keep up with hackers, but I think edge processing will be a great way to deal with it, in other words don’t move the data. Don’t let the data have access to a window, and do as much processing on the edge as possible, and you minimize some of those risks. Keeping it fragmented and distributed is one way of kind of making sure we are dealing with some of those threats.

MCWALTER: What are your views on things like blockchain applied to cleantech?

GOUNDEN: We actually have a small blockchain component we use to basically audit logs with an immutable ledger; it’s basically a smart contracting function that controls who can access to what data when and for what purpose and then tracking, the usage and and what data was used at what point in time. We never saw really the big crypto coin opportunity. A lot of others did, but the idea of this kind of decentralized database infrastructure and auditable ledger that makes a lot of sense, especially in a world where you need technologies that are beyond trust, or you don’t know all the parties. So, in a power grid, where I have a manufacturer of a electric vehicle, and I have a charging station from somebody else, and I have electricity powered by some distributed generation site by a third party and then a grid that connects them; all of those things may not know each other so they need trust to be able to kind of know what’s happening when and be able to have some auditable trail makes sense. So we see a good use for blockchain in those instances. 

MCWALTER: Where did you grow up?

GOUNDEN: I grew up a little bit everywhere. I was born in Canada, but grew up in Scotland and I went to 12 different schools around the world. Some time in California and in Australia and I think that influenced me in a lot of different ways. You become more open to lots of things and you realize the world is filled with very different people and you have to adapt quickly to stay alive and be respectful of others? Because there’s huge diversity and what you think is normal may not be normal to anybody else. I remember going to school in Scotland and on the first day of school meeting somebody and saying “hi” to them. And “hi” was just not said in Scotland in those days. It was a very North American thing .And I remember thinking, well, that’s what you learn, you learn to adapt. So being respectful and open is probably the number one lesson that comes from growing up in so many places.

MCWALTER: I actually had not a dissimilar background, growing up in different countries. And one of things I found was you definitely started to notice, and ask the question, “Why are things like this?” And often people do not notice certain things because it is the water they are swimming in. 

GOUNDEN: Right. I think this is an age old question. I think Voltaire wrote about the foreigner who comes to the court and asks all questions like, “why do you have all of these odd, behaviors and rules and standards?” The outsider often has an interesting perspective about why we do things.

MCWALTER: When building company culture is the primary lever used at the hiring stage or rather the building of certain values within the company over time?

GOUNDEN: The screening process is super, super important. And one thing we do is give little case studies,whether you’re an office admin, a developer or DevOps person, you have different kinds of case study assignments that everybody gets. It’s easy to be charming on a 45 minute call, right or in a meeting, but you need to actually see, are they interested in the work? Can they pay attention to detail? Are they committed to it? We have a value, which is “love in:love out”. If you love what you do, it’ll show in the output that you have. We have a 3-4 month probationary period and some people are like, “yeah, I take that bet. I bet I’m going to be great.” You know, that’s not much of a leap. Generally the best people are the ones who are willing to take that bet on themselves. There are probably 50 other little things that we do along the way to keep people motivated and which attracts the best people.

Painting and Packaging with Carbon

Very enjoyable chat with Ani Sharma, CEO of Graviky Labs, producer of AIR-INK, a unique ink made from CO2 pollution. We discussed the importance artists played in putting AIR-INK on the map, what it is like as a startup working with the sustainability programs of large companies, the difference in the tech scenes between Boston and Bangalore, how prepared India is to cope with future climate risks, the importance of show don’t tell when building a startup and more!

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: I believe one of the products that you’re producing uses carbon to produce a type of ink?

SHARMA: If you look at carbon, it’s a very wide term but it is the basis of any fossil fuel that you ever burn that it will produce these emissions. Now, these emissions are something that we’re trying to fight, because they cause climate change and cause measurable health impact on society. But if you look at them from a material perspective, all these emissions are super tiny in nature, you are dealing with something less than 10 microns in size. And that’s what makes it dangerous, because when they go into your lungs, your body can’t filter it. But the same property which makes it dangerous is the same property that is a very desirable property when you’re making commodity products. So what we thought was here’s an interesting idea. What if we start taking it and kind of turning it into different types of ink? For example, currently we are trying to make inks that can print on textiles, inks that can go into your writing instruments, inks that can be used for packaging. And in the early stages, the art industry became really interested in what we were doing. And it kind of spurred a global movement where people started replacing the black colour they used for their art with our inks, which pushed us forward and led us to start looking at what are the more interesting applications? We can target packaging, for example, so the more packaging we print, the more we are upcycling carbon emissions.

MCWALTER: You’ve worked with some pretty large clients like Heineken, etc. What is it like working with those kinds of large enterprises with a product like this? 

SHARMA: 15-20 years ago, sustainability was this checkbox for big companies. And it’s very recent that companies stopped just talking and they are now kind of waking up and cleaning up their act because the end consumer is becoming very aware of what they’re consuming. How do these companies make their production more sustainable? And sustainability becomes a narrative at these big companies. So we said, what is the easiest way to replace carbon that they use in their production? Printing was the lowest hanging fruit for us, so we targeted that because with print you get on every box out there. So it’s very interesting how sustainability is becoming a part of the production cycle and the sustainability goals of these companies. 

MCWALTER: What’s still the most challenging part of the business supply chain from your point of view?

SHARMA: I think we have an advantage here because we are early in this game but as this is scaling up, there’s a lot of demand coming in that we are not able to fulfil because of the size of the company that we have. So we are still operating at a medium scale in a team of five to seven people full time working on this right now. I will say the biggest challenge is right now standardisation and the market focus so we are still learning. Like how does it position to an apparel company versus apparel companies are willing to pay a higher premium than a packaging company because packaging is not the main product packaging is always the main what the main product comes in. So it moves very fast. So, in terms of software, like how do we build a model around it because we have very few comparables to learn from. But one major learning that we are kind of adopting and how to resolve these challenges, we’ve taken inspiration from the way Dolby built their company, how they licence that this is “powered by Dolby”. 

MCWALTER: I think one of the really powerful ways of making a licensing model work is having really good actual branding on the product or the commodity itself. Looking at AIR-INK, the branding is very distinctive and well designed. What was the process of getting your own branding for AIR-INK?

SHARMA: We are not designers by profession. But the kind of work we are doing is very attractive to the creative community, especially the design based community. So in our very early stages, when we were collaborating with for example, Heineken, it wasn’t just a business deal. It was a massive marketing effort they put in so this idea could be understood by a seven year old. There’s a very influential designer who says sustainability game is all about an aesthetic game. So if you are making things that are aesthetically, it kind of satisfies you. on so many levels, people feel good about it. They want to pay for it. They also know that it measurably improves their contribution to the environment. So during the Heineken collaboration, we worked very closely with some really influential designers from an agency called Publicist.

MCWALTER: In terms of working with artists model, I think it is a huge advantage to be able to have a product that scales in terms of its own branding, because the product is the branding in many ways. What are your general views on the power of artists in changing minds around carbon and climate change?

SHARMA: That’s a great question. This is something that we cracked really well. We opened ourselves up to collaboration and the nature of the team is really driven around very interdisciplinary collaboration, but we also knew that we don’t understand art and aesthetics. And that art is very powerful. Once you realise that it’s very powerful and you cannot do it, you open your doors and give access. And when you give access, the kind of things you see artists come up with is very powerful. So with AIR-INK we spent like zero marketing dollars until now. A genuine community of real artists from around the world, or from places you haven’t heard about came in, they use AIR-INK, and they still do. The branding, as you said correctly, is the product. I think I should use this line,that would be a good addition to the pitch deck.

MCWALTER: How do you think the tech scene in Bangalore compares to the one in Boston?

SHARMA: It’s very different but it’s very similar in spirit. Boston is very hard tech, things like bioengineering, material science. Bangalore became the place where a lot of software jobs were created because of the outsourcing industry. So everybody who would go and get an engineering degree would go straight to Bangalore and there’s a job there. If you throw a stone in the air, it will probably hit somebody who makes an Android app and, or an iPhone app, it will hit a software developer. As the society grew, a lot of people started doing some ambitious startups. And some of those startups succeed, which meant everyone started quitting big companies and regular old roles and started taking more initiative. So I would say the major difference would be the nature of startups. Bangalore is extremely ecommerce software oriented though I’m pushing for a lot more deep tech. So once one company succeeds, a lot of other companies like that also start. So that community is growing. It’s a great city, however, traffic jams are a problem and it hasn’t evolved to cope with modern traffic.

MCWALTER: You grew up in Delhi. How does that shape your approach to things?

SHARMA: I grew up in a very academic family and in the early stages, I was really fortunate to have an exposure to good problems around me and access to mentors for example problems around disability and pollution, which kind of shaped my worldview in terms of how I want to do my engineering. So application of engineering for problems around disability or environment was personally important, but also doing it in a way that it’s a business.  Because I feel that philanthropy is great, but business is the real way to solve problems. In the end, people want to consume and if you’re making them consume better, it’s powerful. 

And because of some of the things that I’ve seen around India and also, living for some time in Boston, there’s a very nice book about experiencing different cultures called culture map. It talks about how you move in different cultures and learn from them. So For example, if I had not grown up in India, I wouldn’t have had the idea of looking at air pollution as a resource. But had I not spent time in Boston, we wouldn’t have had access to a lot of amazing people that came and helped us out on the tech side of things. So I think that bridging happens when you expose yourself to different cultures

MCWALTER: In terms of other technologies, which clean technology gets you most excited about its impact on decarbonisation?

SHARMA: I’m really excited about carbon capture, the way it is growing. There was a lot of debate around it 10-15 years ago because it also kind of hits at the political interests and economic interests of a lot of old companies that were conventionally dependent on fossil fuels. So there’s a huge lobby sitting in the government trying to make things like clean coal or and the sort of green washing that happens around that. Now, decarbonisation, and technologies around it from a carbon capture perspective is one way, but at Graviky we are taking a different route, what we are doing is we are making carbon negative consumption popular first. And once we do that, and once the narrative is built solidly, we will start pushing out more and more carbon capture technologies.

MCWALTER: Will COVID be a net positive or negative for decarbonization?

SHARMA: We did an experiment around it actually. When COVID happened everybody started noticing a big drop in carbon emissions. So people are consuming less, people are in their homes, people are driving less. If we are talking about the circular economy when corona hit, there were no n95 masks for a long period. The cover of the New York Times was about a shortage of masks and n95 masks was produced in a few places then shipped through the regular supply chain. But because of COVID so many of us are pushing for ideas on how can we start producing these masks locally? How can we become self reliant and produce our own safety masks? So, it’s like the crisis automatically shifted gears towards a localised circular economy, which is a good way to look at where the future is going.

MCWALTER: Let’s say I’m a young person, and I want to be the next kind of generation analogue of what you’ve done. What advice would you give to that person, who’s just coming up and wants to be involved in clean technology?

SHARMA: From what I have learned, collaborate as much as you can. If you think you’re a good engineer, then make friends with good designers and good story tellers. And if you are a good storyteller hang around with technologists who can give you a new story to tell in a format that you haven’t used before. I think that’s a good way of starting to learn and to build upon solid ideas. Also, I believe in doing. So build, rather than tell. When you show things to people, people believe it more than you tell it. 

Energy Storage, and Decarbonization

Very enjoyable chat with John Jung,  former CEO and Co-founder of Greensmith energy a long term energy storage company, and currently an operating partner at Cota Capital.. We discussed the investment picture for cleantech and green energy, Greensmith Energy’s acquisition by  Wärtsilä, the massive opportunity of energy storage, why India and China are the countries to watch for the future of cleantech, how fresh eyes on an industry can bring about the most radical innovation and more!

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: What is your perspective on raising money for renewable energy, green technology, clean tech companies from VC? 

JUNG: I can speak to that as an entrepreneur that’s gone out and raised money for different ventures, where the goal was actually to raise the least amount of money. Not the most. Sometimes you hear about Silicon Valley CEOs and how they  go out and raise as much as they can. The problem with that mindset is that, although you may need a certain amount of money, you have to really be deliberate about the trade offs that you create, which basically means you have to say no to a lot of ideas that engineers and developers develop. It also really kind of forces you to make strategic choices of what it is you want to be when you grow up? 

But from my experience of the venture capital community with, with energy and clean energy in particular, I gotta be honest with you over the last 20-30 years, it hasn’t been very good. Having said that, I think very much like the railroad where, maybe 1.0 doesn’t quite kind of get there in terms of all the people that invest their infrastructure. it usually takes a 2.0 or 3.0 infrastructure, it requires critical mass which we are now getting to. 

MCWALTER: Your views on the state of the battery market?

JUNG: It’s really good to be agnostic as much as possible. A good example of what I mean strategically about that is if you are a battery company, let’s say your battery is the best battery. But batteries are very much like car engines. In that you’ve got a reason for a Ferrari engine, you’ve got a different reason for a Volkswagen engine. And it’s not to say one is good or one is bad, you just have different horses for courses needs for. And batteries are no different, not just in terms of duration, and density, but all the different cycling. 

MCWALTER: I’d like to understand the business model a little bit better? Was it like a subscription pricing model or more milestone based? What was the actual kind of monetization strategy of Greensmith?

JUNG: Yeah, I think that’s that’s another excellent question. Because I think this is where a lot of entrepreneurs get wrong, quite frankly. I think it is good to start with something, right. It could be an idea. It could be a model, it could be a material. It could be data, it could be anything. But ultimately, when you’re building a company it’s essential to get an understanding of who’s gonna pay for something that you provide…

MCWALTER: One of the things that I’ve noticed is, the US has resisted a carbon tax so far, while we’ve seen other countries move forward with them including some states in the US having carbon regulations of various types. On the other hand, you have corporations like Microsoft, and even McDonald’s making very strong decarbonization commitments, which ends up having a lot of downward pressure on their supply chains to decarbonize. In your view, which will have the larger impact in the US specifically on decarbonization, government regulation from the top or these kinds of sustainability commitments moving through corporate supply chains?

JUNG: I think there is a lot of traction and with some of those household names people and people pay attention, right? When Apple does this with their new building or, Google and Microsoft does that, it gets a lot of attention. Having said that, I think the big shifts that are happening are regulatory. But it’s being caused by other bigger shifts that are also very positive in the market. And that is associated with this phenomenon that people called the Henderson curve. What I’m basically saying is, it’s not just that solar energy generation, power generation is hitting the parity line. And  the numbers just speak for themselves in terms of new assets, new generation assets that are being deployed around the world, but they’re not stopping there. They’re gonna continue getting cheap. And there’s two reasons behind that. One is the sun and the wind is free, approximately free. The second reason is that I think the heat rate or the efficiency of an internal combustion engine is around 40% maybe. But solar and wind just gets cheaper, the more you produce it. So the last time I read any kind of academic research on the new curve for solar, it was like every time you double the production of a module, whether it’s thin, or crystalline, or what have you, it improves in unit cost by a not insignificant amount and we’re still only scratching the surface on solar penetration around the world. 

MCWALTER: What is your view of the Canadian tech scene? 

JUNG: One of the things that I think is kind of nice about starting companies in Canada, is that in Canada, in particular, is that I think the values are very similar to the US when it comes to entrepreneurs and business. And number two, I believe, for a while Waterloo graduated more software engineers that Microsoft hired than any other school in the world, so the talent is there, right? The economy is super stable, startups usually are created or sometimes created in places where you feel free, you don’t have to worry about this and that you can kind of focus on, how this cloud computing platform is going to disrupt, medical services or whatever you’re thinking about. And then the final thing is, I think it’s got enough critical mass of stuff going on in multiple sectors, because one of the things that startups really benefit from is stakeholders that are along for the ride in some way. 

MCWALTER: You’ve seen kind of clean tech applied in a lot of different countries, which country is most on track to overachieve in terms of their decarbonization?

JUNG: They tend to be  some of the biggest economies in the world, one is India, and one is China. China’s pretty simple.  for all the good and the bad of any country in the world, when they decide to put their mind to something they do it and they do it for a really long time. And they do it with basically half the supply chain of the world. So when you look at the statistics on solar deployment, or when deployment or  storage or  manufacturing capacity, you can kind of take that number, cut it in half, and basically argue that half of that is China. That’s how massive it moves needles, right? Many, many different needles. So, and I think people who are operating in the renewable industry have to be thankful for that, regardless of how they feel about different governments. 

The other one is India.There are some very aggressive business people, developers that are operating in that country and unlike Western Europe and the United States, they are bringing clean energy to some of the poorest people in the world, and I just love that. If you take a look at the electricity prices that a poor farmer pays for, in Southeast Asia, they are as high if not higher than Western European, and the United States and North America. And part of the reason is inefficiency, and all these things that I think are a great opportunity to improve on. But ultimately the eye on the prize there is bringing clean, affordable electricity to people. 

MCWALTER: Is there anything I should have asked you about but did not?

JUNG:The only thing that I would like to add about the energy industry is that sometimes it kind of feels impenetrable.That’s why entrepreneurs like to do B2C type startups where they are working on a thermostat or something that they can relate to like an electric bicycle. I would not shy away from getting into stuff that you don’t know. And seeing if there’s an opportunity to apply the things that you do know, to those and energy is a very good example. When I was hired, I was a hired gun type CEO, brought in by the VCs. I’m not an engineer, but you don’t have to be an engineer to have ideas. So I wouldn’t let the confusion, the noise, the complexity associated with the energy industry and how it’s run and managed, prevent you from finding out more. And we also live in a golden age of not only computers but information and data. So anything you want to know you can basically look up and you can educate yourself, It is really a renaissance for learning as well. So the only thing I would encourage listeners to do is do something very, very different. I kind of wonder if some of the ideas that I had and some of my colleagues who also did not come from the power industry had, were because we were willing to ask stupid questions in an industry where you don’t want to sound stupid, right? So don’t be afraid to sound stupid. 

Materials, AI, and Decarbonization

Great chat with Greg Mulholland, CEO and Co-founder of Citrine Informatics as AI Platform for materials development. We discussed what the early days of Citrine looked like, how they powered through some low times, the massive opportunity of applying machine learning to applied materials science, whether cleantech was becoming mainstream for VCs, how data regulation like GDPR compares to regulation in the materials space, how MBAs can be a form of identity, whether we will see explicit geo-engineering and the potential of superconductors generating future noble prizes and more.

Here is the audio. Some excerpts lightly edited:

MCWALTER: What have you learned as most about hiring and retaining like high quality talent?

MULHOLLAND: The most important thing, I think, is that we’ve been really intentional about our culture from the beginning… A core part of our culture is willingness and ability to give feedback…  and we make it a point to lift each other up. And and I think those characteristics have really led to our success and retention because, people want to feel valued and they do on our team.

and…

MCWALTER: It appears to me that VCs are chronically underrating cleantech; as Citrine recently raised a Series B, would you agree? 

MULHOLLAND: I think less and less, especially since Sequoia, I think sort of notably, announced that they believed that clean tech was the future and a really important investment thesis. All of a sudden, so much attention turned to our space. I would say we’re one aspect of being able to make the world more sustainable place, but I wouldn’t even characterise (Citrine) as pure clean tech. We certainly have some enterprise software bones about us.

You know, honestly, my experience talking to venture investors is that they understand that the world is changing and needs to be a cleaner, greener place. And there’s really no dispute about that. I think a lot of people have gathered that a lot of investors don’t spend a lot of time in that space. And so, often when raising our series A, but even occasionally in our series B, I had to explain to a venture investor controlling hundreds of millions of dollars or more, that the chemicals industry and the materials industry is actually a huge industry. And like, you know, sometimes it gets reactions “Oh, isn’t that a niche?” And it’s like, no, it’s actually, you know, a double digit percent of the global economy. And they’re like, “Well, I know what BSF and Dow and DuPont and 3M”. And then I list off another dozen or 20. And they’re like, “Well, I haven’t heard of half of those”. I’m like, well, all of them do more than $10 billion a year in revenue. And then I say and then there are the ones that do only a billion dollars a year in revenue and you can just see their eyes go wide because they don’t live in that space.

and…

MCWALTER:  how does your kind of approach and model of the world in terms of decarbonisation differ from the proponents of the green new deal and similar approaches?

MULHOLLAND:I don’t know they differ in the long term view to your point. I mean, look, I I want everything to be recyclable, biodegradable, and green in every possible way from from cradle to grave, and entirely circular. From a policy perspective, I think a lot of people just sort of collapse clean tech into one idea. And clean tech isn’t one idea. I mean, you’ve got everything from power generation, which is on a lot of people’s minds. And I think the green new deal is a big component of power generation generation infrastructure behind it. And we don’t touch that, you know, I, I would love that for the grid to run entirely on solar, and maybe we’ll help invent new solar panels. 

At the same time, you know, I think there are a lot of regulators who had been asked to think about new materials and chemicals in the environment that don’t have full context on how things came to be, and how things might progress over time, in the shadow of certain regulations. And I think one that’s really interesting is you know, every once in a while, and particularly just before COVID, the European Commission and the European Union, were talking about banning plastics. And it’s like, well, okay, but here’s, here’s the thing. Almost everything has plastic in it. I mean, even the clothes we are wearing, have some synthetic materials in them, which sort of described succinctly are plastic in some way or another. And so this idea that we can, with enough government force and enough effort, rapidly remove certain types of materials from our world, is just nonsense. But I totally agree with the incentives and the pressure behind it. And so, you know, our approach is to say, look, because of regulatory pressure, consumer preference, the state of the world and so many other things we’re headed on inexorable march towards sustainability. In 100 years, the world’s either more sustainable place, or it’s roughly gone. And, in my view, tools like Citrine’s are simply an accelerant on our ability to make progress against those goals

and… 

MCWALTER: Thinking about like Elon Musk’s various ventures, which will have the longest lasting positive effects ?

MULHOLLAND: I just think Tesla is incredibly exciting short term. They’ve totally turned heads and changed minds with respect to electric cars. I actually think SpaceX is going to have a longer term impact though, because democratising access to space, whether it be for satellites or travel is going to really, really transform how the world approaches things. And you can already see the price pressure of SpaceX changing the dynamics of the space industry, which I think yields enormous opportunities regardless of what types of cars we’re driving.

and…

MCWALTER: Was there anything that I should have asked you about but did not?

MULHOLLAND: I have I think we’re getting close to some real interesting breakthroughs in superconduction. I don’t think we’re going to have commercializable room temperatures superconduction anytime soon but I do think there’s some really cool technology coming around how we control power and how we are able to flex the grid. As we as we learn more about how to control the electromagnetic spectrum around us, I think we’re going to develop new exciting products, but also a more efficient world. And fom a materials perspective, that’s something I’m really excited about, and it’s still fundamental, but I think it’ll be transformational when the time comes. Probably years away but but still transformational.

Learned alot from Greg!

No More Neutrality

The natural state of the Irish people I grew up with is that things were always bad but it would still be grand, a deep rooted cultural contradiction of constant flipflopping between dread and optimism. Then last year happened. I read six books on the climate crisis with “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells being particularly terrifying. I listened to dozens of climate change podcasts. I had long conversations with people responsible for hardening the sea defenses for New York City. My innate optimism started to fall away, and all that was left was the dread. I turned to dystopian fiction and reread Vonnegut and Heller. I started taking Musk’s bell-ringing of a Mad Max future seriously and even looked at some survivalist forums (they are WILD). Deeper and deeper, I felt, well, things are bad but this time it won’t be grand.

It was a temporary state. Maybe things COULD be grand. Saul Griffith appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast and spoke of a future of existing tech saving us from climate disaster. He spoke a language I understood, the language of innovation, and the power of organizations to change the world. I best understand organizations arranged in the shape of startups, but there are many types of organizations that are greater than the sum of their parts and can solve real issues. As long as humans can build such organizations, we have a shot. But we need organizations whose goals have real impact and not the existing goal many have of carbon neutrality. 

Neutrality fails

Carbon neutrality is the great kabuki theatre of the climate crisis. Governments and Fortune 500 companies move around carbon on their books like a tax shelter accountant, all while the world starts to burn. It functions as a marketing gimmick and a way for managers and policymakers to avoid making tough decisions. If the whole world became carbon neutral today, we would still need to pull around 900 Gigatons of carbon out of the atmosphere to get back to pre-industrial levels. Trying to achieve carbon neutrality means we admit failure before we even start. We need to go further.

The world economy must become carbon negative as soon as possible; therefore, we must start, on net, reducing the CO2 currently in the atmosphere. A carbon negative economy in the coming decades means that we not only stop the worst-case scenarios, but we may also have the chance to build a bloody brilliant world together. But, the world economy is not a charity, and so there must be strong financial incentives for there to be any chance of achieving carbon negativity.  

Carbotnic is a site about the new carbon-negative economy. There are currently hundreds of companies small and big who are building real businesses in a way that are right now or will someday be net carbon negative. I and a team of writers, entrepreneurs and policy makers will write about them, interview their leaders, and try and zero in where their business models make sense and can have a serious impact on decarbonizing the world economy. 

We hope this site has a natural shelf-life, that it can be shuttered the year that the CO2 in the air start to decline, until then, we will do our best to make a bloody brilliant world together.