Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million toward a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.”  Updated: A person familiar with the plan has told TechCrunch that this will be connected to Xprize Foundation, the non-profit organization that host competitions aimed at encouraging technological development and innovation.

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible products such as converting ethanol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks. Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

Forsaking funding at a $1 billion valuation, Solugen preps a new green chemical product and a big 2021

Late last year, Solugen, a startup using synthetic biology to take hydrocarbons out of the chemicals industry, decided against pursuing a new round of funding that would have valued the company at over $1 billion, TechCrunch has learned.

Instead, the Houston-based bio-manufacturing company raised an internal round of roughly $30 million from existing investors and continued working on its latest project — a new bio-based manufacturing process for a high-value specialty chemical that can act as an anti-corrosive agent.

That work represents a potentially lucrative new product line for the company and charts a course for a host of other businesses that are refashioning the basic building blocks of life in an attempt to supplant chemistry with biology for manufacturing and production.

If Solugen can get its high-value chemical into commercial production, the company can follow the path that sustainable tech companies like Tesla have mastered — moving from a pricy specialty product into the mass market. And rather than over-promise and underdeliver, Solugen wanted to get the product line right first before raising big bucks, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.

As the world looks to move away from oil and its byproducts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down or reverse global climate change, the chemicals industry is in the crosshairs as a huge target for disruption. Vehicle electrification solves only one part of the oil problem. The extractive industry doesn’t just produce fuel, but also the chemicals that make up most of the products that defined consumer goods in the twentieth century.

Chemicals are everywhere and they’re a huge business.

Companies like Zymergen raised hundreds of millions of dollars last year to develop industrial applications for synthetic biology, and they’re not alone. Startups including Geltor, Impossible Foods, Ginkgo Bioworks, Lygos, Novomer and Perfect Day have all raised significant amounts of capital to reduce the environmental footprint of food, chemicals, ingredients and plastics through synthetic biology.

Some of these companies are seeing early success in food replacements and ingredients, but the promise of biologically based chemicals have been elusive — until now.

Solugen’s new product will produce glucaric acid, a tough-to-make chemical that can be used in water treatment facilities and as an anti-corrosive agent — and the company can make it with a zero carbon (or potentially carbon negative) manufacturing process, according to Solugen co-founder and chief technology officer, Sean Hunt.

The glucaric acid from Solugen is cheaper to produce and more environmentally friendly than existing phosphonates that are used for water treatment — and the company has the benefit of competing against chemicals manufacturers in China.

Given the continuing tensions between the two countries, the U.S. is looking to make more high-value products — including chemicals — domestically, and Solugen’s technology is a good way forward to have home-grown supplies of critical materials.

Solugen still intends to raise more capital, the company just wanted to wait until its latest production plant for the acid came online, according to Hunt.

It’s also the fruit of years of planning. The two co-founders, Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, first realized they could potentially use the technology they’d developed to make specialty chemicals back in 2017, according to Hunt. But first the company had to make the hydrogen peroxide as a precursor chemical, Hunt said.

“It’s advantageous for us to focus on this,” said Hunt. “As we scale, we can enter more commodity-type markets down the road.”

It’s all part of the notable strides the entire industry is making, said Hunt. “Synthetic biology has really made significant strides,” he said. “We have our commercial plant coming online this summer [and it proves] synthetic biology has gotten to the point where we can compete on price and performance.”

So the capital infusion will come as the company gets closer to the completion of these commercial scale facilities.

“It’s not like we were sitting on a term sheet and we said no,” Hunt said. “We want to make sure that we are hitting the milestones and the goals at a commensurate pace which is this year. I’m extremely bullish and optimistic of 2021.”

Solugen’s co-founder sees the path that his company is on as one that other startups working in the synthetic biology space will pursue to bring profitable products to market at the higher end before competing with more sustainable versions of commodity chemicals.

“How do you start a company that has this level of capital intensity?” Hunt asked. “You can start in the fine chemicals space where everything sells for tens to hundreds of dollars per pound. For us, glucaric acid is that specialty chemical and then we will do commodity.”

Samsung’s upcycling program is designed to give new life to old tech

In the world of annual refresh cycles, there’s always been a big question mark around what to do with all of the old tech we too readily abandon. There are a number of options for disposing and recycling these objects that often contain rare earth and sometimes harmful material. The concept of upcycling has also become an increasingly popular option — offering a new lease on life for old technology. After all, your three-year-old smartphone may not be the latest and greatest, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worthless.

During this morning’s CES kickoff press conference, Samsung outlined its new Galaxy Upcycling at Home program. For now, we got some pretty broad strokes about the program — and we’ll likely get more information at this Friday’s Galaxy Unpacked event. Here’s what the company had to say: “The new program reimagines the lifecycle of an older Galaxy phone and offers consumers options on how they might be able to repurpose their device to create a variety of convenient IoT tools.”

Examples from the presser include a baby monitor, pet-care sensor for turning on lights remotely and a more abstract “digitally safe home” using Samsung Knox. It will be interesting to see what else the company’s got in store on that front — and certainly there’s something to be said for keeping old tech relevant even after its planned obsolescence.

The other piece of the puzzle is one of the more fun initiatives the company has introduced in recent years, with boxes that can be converted into household objects. The company announced this morning that all of its QLED, UHD TV and audio projects will feature the packaging.

Per Samsung:

As part of an ongoing commitment to eco-consciousness, Samsung is creating products and solutions with sustainability at the core. For example, Samsung’s new Solar Cell Remote Control—made in part with recycled plastic—can be charged via solar or indoor lighting, reducing battery waste.

SilviaTerra wants to bring the benefits of carbon offsets to every landowner everywhere

Zack Parisa and Max Nova, the co-founders of the carbon offset company SilviaTerra, have spent the last decade working on a way to democratize access to revenue-generating carbon offsets.

As forestry credits become a big, booming business on the back of multibillion-dollar commitments from some of the world’s biggest companies to decarbonize their businesses, the kinds of technologies that the two founders have dedicated 10 years of their lives to building are only going to become more valuable.

That’s why their company, already a profitable business, has raised $4.4 million in outside funding led by Union Square Ventures and Version One Ventures, along with Salesforce founder and the driving force between the One Trillion Trees Initiative, Marc Benioff .

“Key to addressing the climate crisis is changing the balance in the so-called carbon cycle. At present, every year we are adding roughly 5 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere. Since atmospheric carbon acts as a greenhouse gas this increases the energy that’s retained rather than radiated back into space which causes the earth to heat up,” writes Union Square Ventures managing partner Albert Wenger in a blog post. “There will be many ways such drawdown occurs and we will write about different approaches in the coming weeks (such as direct air capture and growing kelp in the oceans). One way that we understand well today and can act upon immediately are forests. The world’s forests today absorb a bit more than one gigatons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere and turn it into biomass. We need to stop cutting and burning down existing forests (including preventing large scale forest fires) and we have to start planting more new trees. If we do that, the total potential for forests is around 4 to 5 gigatons per year (with some estimates as high as 9 gigatons).”

For the two founders, the new funding is the latest step in a long journey that began in the woods of Northern Alabama, where Parisa grew up.

After attending Mississippi State for forestry, Parisa went to graduate school at Yale, where he met Louisville, Kentucky native Max Nova, a computer science student who joined with Parisa to set up the company that would become SilviaTerra.

SilviaTerra co-founders Max Nova and Zack Parisa. Image Credit: SilviaTerra

The two men developed a way to combine satellite imagery with field measurements to determine the size and species of trees in every acre of forest.

While the first step was to create a map of every forest in the U.S., the ultimate goal for both men was to find a way to put a carbon market on equal footing with the timber industry. Instead of cutting trees for cash, potentially landowners could find out how much it would be worth to maintain their forestland. As the company notes, forest management had previously been driven by the economics of timber harvesting, with over $10 billion spent in the U.S. each year.

The founders at SilviaTerra thought that the carbon market could be equally as large, but it’s hard for most landowners to access. Carbon offset projects can cost as much as $200,000 to put together, which is more than the value of the smaller offset projects for landowners like Parisa’s own family and the 40 acres they own in the Alabama forests.

There had to be a better way for smaller landowners to benefit from carbon markets too, Parisa and Nova thought.

To create this carbon economy, there needed to be a single source of record for every tree in the U.S. and while SilviaTerra had the technology to make that map, they lacked the compute power, machine learning capabilities and resources to build the map.

That’s where Microsoft’s AI for Earth program came in.

Working with AI for Earth, SilviaTierra created their first product, Basemap, to process terabytes of satellite imagery to determine the sizes and species of trees on every acre of America’s forestland. The company also worked with the U.S. Forestry Service to access their data, which was used in creating this holistic view of the forest assets in the U.S.

With the data from Basemap in hand, the company has created what it calls the Natural Capital Exchange. This program uses SilviaTerra’s unparalleled access to information about local forests, and the knowledge of how those forests are currently used to supply projects that actually represent land that would have been forested were it not for the offset money coming in.

Currently, many forestry projects are being passed off to offset buyers as legitimate offsets on land that would never have been forested in the first place — rendering the project meaningless and useless in any real way as an offset for carbon dioxide emissions. 

“It’s a bloodbath out there,” said Nova of the scale of the problem with fraudulent offsets in the industry. “We’re not repackaging existing forest carbon projects and trying to connect the demand side with projects that already exist. Use technology to unlock a new supply of forest carbon offset.”

The first Natural Capital Exchange project was actually launched and funded by Microsoft back in 2019. In it, 20 Western Pennsylvania land owners originated forest carbon credits through the program, showing that the offsets could work for landowners with 40 acres, or, as the company said, 40,000.

Landowners involved in SilviaTerra’s pilot carbon offset program paid for by Microsoft. Image Credit: SilviaTerra

“We’re just trying to get inside every landowners annual economic planning cycle,” said Nova. “There’s a whole field of timber economics… and we’re helping answer the question of given the price of timber, given the price of carbon does it make sense to reduce your planned timber harvests?”

Ultimately, the two founders believe that they’ve found a way to pay for the total land value through the creation of data around the potential carbon offset value of these forests.

It’s more than just carbon markets, as well. The tools that SilviaTerra have created can be used for wildfire mitigation as well. “We’re at the right place at the right time with the right data and the right tools,” said Nova. “It’s about connecting that data to the decision and the economics of all this.”

The launch of the SilviaTerra exchange gives large buyers a vetted source to offset carbon. In some ways it’s an enterprise corollary to the work being done by startups like Wren, another Union Square Ventures investment, that focuses on offsetting the carbon footprint of everyday consumers. It’s also a competitor to companies like Pachama, which are trying to provide similar forest offsets at scale, or 3Degrees Inc. or South Pole.

Under a Biden administration there’s even more of an opportunity for these offset companies, the founders said, given discussions underway to establish a Carbon Bank. Established through the existing Commodity Credit Corp. run by the Department of Agriculture, the Carbon Bank would pay farmers and landowners across the U.S. for forestry and agricultural carbon offset projects.

“Everybody knows that there’s more value in these systems than just the product that we harvest off of it,” said Parisa. “Until we put those benefits in the same footing as the things we cut off and send to market…. As the value of these things goes up… absolutely it is going to influence these decisions and it is a cash crop… It’s a money pump from coastal America into middle America to create these things that they need.” 

Coral Vita cultivates $2M seed to take its reef restoration mission global

Coral reefs all over the world are struggling to survive, with millions of people and billions of dollars in business that rely on them at risk — on top of the fundamental tragedy of losing such a crucial ecosystem. Coral Vita aims to modernize both coral restoration techniques and the economy surrounding them, and has raised a $2 million seed round to kick things off in earnest.

I wrote about Coral Vita late in 2019 when I encountered co-founder Gator Halpern on the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Accelerator at Sea. At the time, the operation was both smaller and under siege by Hurricane Dorian, which wiped out the team’s coral farm in the Bahamas — and then, of course, the pandemic arrived just in time to spoil the team’s 2020 plans along with everyone else’s.

But despite the general chaos of the last year, Coral Vita managed to start and at last close a $2 million round, with the intention to come back bigger and better and demonstrate a new global model for the field.

“We decided rather than just rebuilding our pilot farm to that pilot level, we’d just take the next step forward in our journey. We really believe this is an opportunity to jump start a restoration economy,” said Sam Teicher, co-founder and chief reef officer.

To picture how reef restoration looks today, imagine (as Teicher invited me to) an underwater garden near the shore, with floating ropes and structures on which grow coral fragments that are occasionally harvested and transported to the area in need of young, healthy corals.

Corals grow in a tank at Coral Vita in the Bahamas.

Image Credits: Coral Vita

“But when you think about the scale of the problem — half the world’s reefs are dead and 90 percent of the other half are predicted to die in the next 30 years — relying on underwater facilities alone isn’t possible,” he said.

The plan Coral Vita has is to transition away from ocean-based farms to land facilities that allow for much improved yield and survivability, and employ advanced techniques to speed up coral’s growth and increase its survival rate. One such technique is coral microfragmenting, developed by the restoration community at large, in which corals are broken up into tiny pieces, which can grow as much as 50 times faster in aggregate. And by doing so on land they can exert much more control over the coral’s attributes.

“We’ve got tanks on land with clean sea water pumping through and the ability, among other things, to control conditions,” he explained. “So if you think of what it’ll be like off the coast of Grand Bahama in 40-50 years, we can essentially simulate that to harden the corals against those conditions. Up front, an ocean-based nursery is much cheaper, but when you start thinking about the need to grow millions or billions of corals around the world, land-based facilities start to look a lot more realistic. The cost goes down with scale, too — ocean-based nurseries go to about $30-$40 per coral; we can get it down to $10 as we get up to a hundred or a thousand tanks.”

Onlookers view the coral growing tanks at Coral Vita

On the left, a Bahamanian tourism official (far left) listens to Sam Teicher. On the right, Gator Halpern (center) talks with others before the pandemic. Image Credits: Coral Vita

Not only is the physical scale limited at present, but the income sources are as well: Often it’s government money instead of the inexhaustible well of private cash. Coral Vita hopes to be able to change that by increasing and diversifying supply and income, and going directly to those affected.

As the world starts to open back up, Coral Vita hopes to be able to rely again on eco-tourism, with people coming by the coral farm as they might go to a hatchery or wildlife reserve. That helps balance far-flung income and projects with more local ones (and connects the company to smaller communities like those where it’s based).

While things were still locked down, the company took the opportunity to allow distant support for its local operations, however, by expanding its “adopt a coral” campaign. Anyone who’s contributed to one of these for an endangered animal or ravaged forest will be familiar with how it works, but until earlier this year Coral Vita hadn’t actively pursued the concept.

“We’re trying to transform the space away from grants and aid — we’re selling to customers that depend on the ecosystems of reefs,” Teicher said. “If you’re a hotel that relies on scuba or snorkel tourists, if you’re a coastal property owner or insurer, a government, a development bank, a cruise line, you can hire Coral Vita to restore the reefs that you depend on.”

This superficially mercenary business model where commercially important reefs get priority wouldn’t be necessary, of course, if governments and industry hadn’t systematically neglected these reefs to begin with. Not that privately funded projects are somehow fundamentally tainted, but this type of restoration work tends to be seen as the milieu of nonprofits and government agencies. One might consider this approach a direct, if late, tax that cuts out the government middle man.

The fact is this is globally crucial work that needs to start now, not in five or 10 years when the correct conservation funds are organized by concerned parties. Every month counts when reefs are actively deteriorating, and private money is the only realistic option to scale up fast and do what needs to be done. Plus, as the process becomes cheaper, it becomes easier to fund projects without commercial backing.

Corals grow in a tank at Coral Vita in the Bahamas.

Image Credits: Coral Vita

“On top of that is the ability to innovate,” added Teicher. “What we’re trying to do with this round is to make advances to the science and engineering, including 3D printing and robotics in the process. We’re launching R&D projects not just for restoration but protection.”

He cited Tom Chi, co-founder of Google X and an early advisor and investor, as someone who has pushed on the automation side, comparing the industry to agriculture, where robotics is currently having a transformative effect.

Proving out the scalable land-based farms opens up the possibility of a global presence, as well — lowering costs and lead times for corals to be brought to where they’re needed.

“We’re at a point where we need to rethink adaptation and how to fund it,” said Teicher. “The two-year plan is to launch more farms in other countries — ultimately we want them in every nation with reefs and for this to be the biggest coral farm that ever existed.”

Of course he, like most, would rather that restoration never had to happen in the first place. If people would stop the practices that kill reefs, it would certainly help — though as with most of these global-scale problems, stopping the behavior doesn’t mean the problem disappears. Coral farming will still be crucial for recovery, just as other mitigations and contributions will be needed to help nature reestablish balance, or at least something approaching balance.

Leading the $2 million round was the environment-focused Builders Collective, with participation from Apollo Projects’ Max Altman and baseball’s Max and Erica Scherzer. Earlier investors (in a pre-seed or “seed one” round) include the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, Tom Chi as mentioned, Adam Draper, Yale University, and Sven and Kristin Lindblad.