A wave of startups solves cow burps and other climate problems

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Cows burp hundreds once every day. Due to the peculiarities of their digestive system, they emit tons of methane into the atmosphere, which makes them among the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions. For decades, environmentalists have urged consumers to eat less beef to limit The impact of animal husbandry on the planet. Alex Brown has another idea: to make cows burp less.

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Brown, co-founder and CEO of start-up Alga Biosciences, is developing a feed additive that changes the digestion of cows. His startup is based on early sciencewho discovered that feeding livestock a certain type of algae—Taxiform asparagusto be precise, can reduce methane belching by 80 percent or more. Growing asparagopsis taxiformis is expensive, so Brown’s company is working to chemically alter the algae to make it a cheaper alternative. The company also positions itself as a cost-effective solution for farmers: cows retain more nutrients when they eat algae, says Brown, so farmers can feed them about 20 percent less.

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Brown is one of about 400 founders who pitched ideas at Y Combinator (YC) Demo Days this week. Held by the startup accelerator twice a year, the event gives its founders the opportunity to sell their ideas to angel investors and venture capitalists. (This year demo days were held in Zoom, YC format. persisted since the pandemic.) Many of the founders this week came up with big ideas about neobanks and fintech for emerging markets. But a record 31 of them create products and services to save the planet. YC has funded 90 climate change companies since 2010; more than a third of them belong to its current class.

Some of these startups are ambitious projects, such as starting a company. giant machines that suck carbon dioxide straight out of the air. Others are using the software to maximize solar farms’ energy output or help companies reduce their carbon footprint. “Three or four years ago it wasn’t clear to many founders whether investors would fund such ideas,” says Gustav Alströmer, YC group partner who leads climate action. “Now we know exactly what it is.

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These companies are trying to jump into a growing trend: Last year, climate technology startups from the US raised more than $40 billion in venture capital 100x increase over 2013.

Interest in climate technology has grown for several reasons. Investors have begun to capitalize on earlier cleantech successes like electric car maker Rivian, fueling an appetite for more. The political will for decarbonization has also increased over the past few years. Leaders in the US and Europe have called for drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, creating market opportunities for startups that want to build the technology to make this possible.

Another big draw is the founders. For decades, cleantech has been led by people working in science who have brought academic research to the business world. But many of the climate technology founders at YC came from software companies like Amazon, Google, and Airbnb.

“There is a real belief that we can move at a pace more like that of a software company,” says Brown, who worked at a data science startup before starting Alga Biosciences. (His co-founders are both chemists.) Researchers just started is studying the effects of algae on cattle feed, but Brown’s startup plans to move much faster, feeding 15,000 cows by the fall.

This pace may appeal to investors, but the researchers warn that science moves slowly for a reason. Most algae cattle feed supplements have yet to “have not yet proven their claims to reduce emissions throughout the life cycle of beef production and in the meantime may lead to incentivizing further beef production,” says Matthew Hayek, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University. .

AT article for WIRED, Hayek argued that such “technical quick fixes” absolve people of climate blame. Worse, technologists can overestimate their influence, diverting attention from better solutions. At the same time, Hayek says he has no problem with Alga Biosciences. “I’m glad all these companies are looking for private investment and growth,” he says, rather than selling offsets in the carbon markets.

Robert Stoner, associate director of science and technology for the MIT Energy Initiative, agreed that it is too early to tell which of these latest climate technology ideas will have a real impact. “In any case, the answer to the question of their viability will come down to the usual things,” he says, including determining the demand and the degree of commitment of the team. “I’m not very optimistic about these specific ideas based on the limited information I see, but half the fun of early stage startups is trying to do something with them, so I don’t want to say a word of discouragement or discouragement. . about any of them.”

Now these startups must convince the wider investment community that their ideas can be good business. In their demo presentations, the founders emphasized that their startups could not only cut carbon emissions, but also make money from it. But the mood in the room is very different from just a few years ago, when founders working on climate technology startups were often told that their ideas couldn’t make money or that they were better off going nonprofits.

“Today’s founders are very lucky,” says Alain Rodriguez, co-founder of SINAI Technologies, which develops carbon management software. SINAI went through Y Combinator in 2020 when there were only three climate technology companies in the package and far fewer investors looking to include climate in their portfolios. “People no longer wonder if there is a market.”

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