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Manager and founders of Cambridge venture builder Carbon Thirteen, Jonathan Cumming, Dr Chris Coleridge, Dr Nicky Dee, and Michael Langguth.

Tech to the Rescue: Solutions for Saving The Climate

Carbon13 is a new concept in climate tech support, aiming to help founders with ambitious decarbonization goals.

Every founding and every investment is an act of hope. When the idea of joint stock investment burgeoned in the 16th and 17th centuries, the hope was for profit, for a higher return on an individual investment (of time and labor for the founder, of money for the investor).

Now there is a perceivable shift.

The hope is not merely for profit, but also for something more general. The hope is for nothing less than saving the world. The hope is that investing in new technologies will solve the problem of the climate emergency and sundry related social effects.

In recent years, Berlin has seen the rise of a number of investment funds with this new focus. For instance, 

  • Revent is an early stage VC for founders who are tackling the world’s “system-critical” problems such as health, sustainability, food, and the climate crisis. 
  • AENU founder and partner Ferry Heilemann says, “We invest in technologies that contribute to solving the climate crisis or advancing social equality.“ 
  • Extantia is a Berlin-based investment company that only backs startups who will make a positive impact in the transition to a sustainable economy, primarily by addressing the climate crisis. They see decarbonisation as a business opportunity, saying, “Cooling down the planet requires hot ideas.” 

Furthermore, cleantech is one of the hot topics, with several accelerators in town focusing on clean technology

Joining company builders such as Entrepreneur First and Antler, an international player with a clear climate focus has set up an office in Berlin. 

We spoke to Carbon Thirteen.

Interview with Simon Dierks, Head of Marketing EU

Thanks for joining us today. First question: is carbon unlucky?
Is carbon unlucky?

I’ll rephrase that. Why the name Carbon Thirteen?
[laughs] Okay, now I get it. Carbon13. The name. It’s because Carbon-13 is an element. While C13 is an isotope that exists stably in nature, there was an increased prominence of this element in tree rings from the 1850s on. That was one of the first proof points that climate change is anthropogenic. Human made. So that’s where the name comes from, and I think it fits very well.

Simon Dierks, Head of Marketing EU at Carbon Thirteen
Simon Dierks from Carbon13 – © Carbon13

And Carbon13, the company. What do you do? Are you an incubator? Are you an accelerator? Are you a VC?
All of it together. We call ourselves “the venture builder for the climate emergency”. We only support ideas that have the potential to mitigate or remove or reduce 10 million tons of CO2 and equivalents per year. All of the founders need to show us their path to these 10 million tons per year. Of course, that’s not possible in year one, but at scale they should reach these numbers and they need to show us how.

Where and when was Carbon13 founded?
Carbon13 was founded in 2019. The idea was to begin our first program in 2020, but then there was the pandemic. It was ... an obstacle. So we started at the end of 2020 with the first program and did our first investments in 2021.

Carbon13 was founded in Cambridge because most of the founders are located in Cambridge and very, very closely linked to the Cambridge University and the Cambridge Business School. So that’s a great breeding ground for attracting talents from science and tech, especially.

And why come to Berlin?
Because it went so well that we thought now is the time to expand and to launch another location. Because what we aim for is to support 500 ventures in the next five years, and we want to remove 400 million tons of CO2 in the next five years. That is 1% of global emissions. And we don’t have much time. And that’s why we are convinced we need to have more locations. There will be a third location in 2024.

The second location was a hard, tough decision. It was clear it would be in the German speaking market or countries, because our network in Germany is also very good when it comes to the location of the many experts in our network. But it was a decision between Zurich, Munich and Berlin, and in the end it was the gut feeling of the founders that Berlin has the tightest, the most vibrant ecosystem when it comes to climate tech.

Tell us more about the program you are planning in Berlin.
We have attracted 400 to 500 applications for a cohort in Berlin, and will decide on 70 to 80 individuals and bring them together from April 18th on in Berlin. All of them have in common that they are extraordinary in many ways. First of all, they are super curious and motivated to fight and mitigate climate change and the climate crisis. Second, they are very experienced either in tech, science, or business. These are the three areas that we are looking for. We take care that we have a well-balanced pool of talent from these three areas.

Let’s say you have a great idea for a hydrogen startup. And you want to create green ammonia production. And you’ve been working in a lab for four or six years and maybe you even have a patent already. But you don’t know how to commercialize this and how to scale the idea. So you might need a commercial funder.

Or the other way round. You worked in the energy industry for a long time and you have seen old patterns that you don’t think are the best version. You want to adjust that and you have a great idea. But you don’t have the technical expertise to implement your idea. Then you will find your technical match in our program.

Our program is three phases long. In total, eight months. First phase is the teaming phase. So we bring together these people with different expertise and diverse backgrounds. It will be a very international cohort – we can see that from the application so far. So, let’s assume half of them are German and the other half is from all other European countries. Within the first phase, they team up, we show them techniques and support them. And explain what we think carbon intelligence is and prepare their carbon case from day one on. And after this phase one, more than 90% of these individuals have managed to form a team, and that’s necessary to reach phase two because the teams then become ventures.

At the end of phase two, they incorporate into a climate tech startup. In phase two, we work on the product market fit. The founders do a lot of customer research. They reach out to potential partners and hope for letters of intent. We call that the validation phase. Also at the end of phase two our investment committee decides to invest in 12 to 14 of the teams that have emerged.

And then, with these 12 to 14 ventures, we start with phase three, which is the acceleration phase.

How do you ensure that the startups that you create are successful in their fields? What makes you different from other incubators/accelerators?
So I think, first of all, other accelerators and incubators are also doing great work. So I would hope that they support their startups at all levels so that they will be successful. I mentioned the laser sharp focus on carbon that we have. Also we have a huge network of mentors, corporates, investors, carbon experts, tech experts and entrepreneurs in residence. So we have people with a lot of entrepreneurial experience, and they are something like a godfather or godmother for the startups and support them in a target-oriented way.

Why is it important that industry and business achieve decarbonization?
So hopefully we can agree that decarbonization at all is important. If we do a checkmark on this, we can continue.

So what is your strategy to tackle this challenge?
We are convinced that corporates are one of the biggest levers that we have. If you work on something and scale it just by yourself, then it would take some time until you have massive impact. But if you have an innovation in a field like hydrogen or green ammonia or new materials, or let’s say you have found a way which makes the production of concrete more resource-efficient or, even better, involves a new material that is much more climate-friendly in production, then you can have a tiny innovation and show that to corporates who have mass production. And if they implement your innovation, your impact will be massive rapidly. So that’s why we think that working together with corporates is a smart idea.

There are a lot of topics that haven’t been touched. They’re not very prominent at the moment, such as water bodies, hydropower, or things like cultivating seagrass. So there’s huge potential in a lot of corners that we haven’t looked in yet. That’s another strategy. To create new markets.

It’s interesting that you mention the corporates as the biggest lever. When it comes to the biggest challenges to achieving decarbonization, isn’t that the corporates themselves?
Yeah. It’s the corporates that are responsible for a lot of emissions, but also have the possibility to quickly initiate new ways of operating. When you think of this big lever, then if they reduce their massive emissions by 2%, that’s still a massive reduction. 

“Corporates are in desperate need for innovation.”

When it comes to corporates, I see this as a major opportunity because they’re in so desperate need for innovation. Because they have to reduce emissions, sooner rather than later. The sooner the better, because it will get more and more expensive in the future to emit CO2 and equivalents. That’s something that all of the corporates are working on with high speed to secure their business model.

Because of regulation, you mean.
Because of regulation and pricing of CO2, yeah. And this is their biggest threat at the moment, I would say. Just through the glasses of the big industries. I don’t want to miss saying that the planet also needs reduction desperately, because if we can’t reach the 1.5 goal this will have terrible consequences, and the world will not be the same anymore.

One thing is very important: a good innovation needs to be scalable and commercializable. Because if it isn’t, then it will remain small and the impact will remain small – and we don’t have the time. We are convinced that capitalism and the capitalistic system is part of the problem. But we decided that we don’t have enough time to change the system, so we need to operate inside of the system, with the system logic. All of the founders have that mindset already: You need to bring together ecology and economy. Otherwise, your solution won’t have a big impact.

I think it’s not contradictory because what was missing so far is that the harm to the planet was not part of the price. But it will be. It’s still not. But if you think of carbon credits and price one ton of emission, this is about to change. And it will change rapidly in the next two years, I’m sure. So the problem of the economy was not that they’re seeking profit. Yeah, that’s also part of the problem, but it leads to greater innovation and to competition. My point is that if you have a better pricing that integrates all of the supply chain and all of the production chain and all the emissions along the whole life cycle, then the system can be fairer. And then industries and businesses need to change, because they can’t survive without changing and starting to operate in a more sustainable, let’s say, in a net zero way.

A recent study that came out here in Germany by Ernst & Young said that only 15% of all investments made in startups are made in startups with a sustainability focus. Only 15%. Why is that, and what do you do differently?
I would say this study, or at least this statistic, is misleading. The investments that have been made in climate tech increased by far over the last years.

We have a laser sharp focus on carbon impact. Like I said, all of our ventures get all it takes to prepare their carbon case. And when they scale their venture and then their solution, they have all the numbers ready. And they can show what impact they will have and what impact they have already. And that is very, very attractive to investors.

“What you can’t measure is no success.”

In the future, as I mentioned, emissions will get very expensive. And the measurement of emissions and emission reduction is the key. Because what you can’t measure is no success.

We have a dozen experts from the carbon side on our team, including Carbon13 cofounder and Chief Sustainability Officer Dr Nicky Dee, to ensure that the carbon case is set up or at least well prepared. And investors tell us that that is a unique selling proposition, and that they like that very much.

Yeah, it’s true, that stat on its own is maybe misleading in the sense that in certain sectors which are perhaps more relevant, such as the energy sector, there the percentage is, of course, much, much higher, right.
Yeah. The biggest emitter is the energy sector. But the most VC money has been invested into the mobility sector. That was because of business model scalability and the return on investment.

And infrastructure, right? It’s too expensive to invest in energy because you need so much infrastructure to change anything, right?
Right, you need a lot of infrastructure. And there are not many bioreactors ready and available, for example. But I’m sure this will change as governments and city councils will provide a lot of support to open this sector to climate tech innovation, because, again, it’s the biggest. So housing and real estate is already shifting slightly into more sustainable models. And the energy sector will also. I would say, especially in Germany in the last year since the energy crisis started, we could see how quickly you can make a change. Think of the harbors.

You mean liquid gas, right?
Liquid gas harbors in Wilhelmshaven in northern Germany. The LNG terminals.

On the other hand, Germany is still going on for the moment with brown coal. So it’s swings and roundabouts.
Sure, sure.

So you are relying on the regulator having more power than the corporates. 
In the USA the same process is going on. $300bn will be deployed by the USA government into climate tech. The ripples, including copycat programs of subsidy and investment by other countries, will be felt around the world. 

Germany and other European countries leaving the Energy Charter Treaty in 2022 was a big structural step away from favoring fossil fuel-based energy. The EU continues to be the "big engine" for climate tech policy with the carbon border adjustment tax and laws against greenwashing making it the frontrunner.

You can’t close your eyes. I mean, the consequences of climate change are here. In the USA, they have either hurricanes or they have wildfires. And both are not exactly stabilizing the economy. So it’s nudging the system, the economy. And businesses and corporates have to change, because otherwise they will get extinct too, not just most of the species.

Getting back to Berlin: Are you in competition with people like Revent or Extantia or Aenu?
I’d say all the accelerators have a slightly different model, and we work together with some. That’s the great thing about climate tech and the climate ecosystem as well. All of us are convinced – sure, you have to fight for your talent and you have to fight for your founders to be in a good position. But what we are doing will lift all of our boats, and that’s what we need. The whole climate tech ecosystem is very, very supportive and collaborative.

Is there anything else that you want to impart here?
One very important thing is that our applications are still open. Till February 26th I would like to encourage prospective or experienced founders to start their next entrepreneurial journey in climate tech together with us. Because so far great ventures have evolved and there will be a lot more. And I can’t wait for our first Berlin based climate tech startups in summer ’23.

Super. Simon, thank you very much.

Interview: Olaf Bryan Wielk, ideenmanufaktur
Header image: © Carbon13

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