Oct 24, 2018

Y Combinator's carbon-removal push

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The startup accelerator Y Combinator is looking to fund entrepreneurs and non-profit researchers working on "frontier technologies" for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The big picture: Y Combinator is among the most influential organizations in the startup world and has helped launch Dropbox, Airbnb and others. Its new request for applications comes two weeks after a major UN science report concluded that carbon removal — not just a huge expansion of zero-carbon energy — will be needed to prevent the dire consequences of allowing warming beyond 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

  • Per YC's website, "While these approaches are not our Plan A, we think it's time to get Plan B ready."

What they're doing: Among other approaches, YC is looking at four broad areas that they say deserve more attention and potential funding:

  1. The use of genetically engineered ocean phytoplankton that sequesters CO2.
  2. Electro-geochemistry, which would use renewable energy to power an electrochemical process that speeds up the earth's natural CO2 absorption in rock formations while also creating hydrogen.
  3. Cell-free enzyme systems that "could fix carbon in perpetuity."
  4. "Desert flooding" to create shallow reservoirs that could be used to grow carbon-absorbing phytoplankton while providing irrigation and freshwater nearby areas.

What's next: YC president Sam Altman tells me that ideally they would fund a "small handful" of companies next year.

  • He guesses the number will eventually be between 5 and 20 in order to have a "reasonable chance of success."
  • Under YC's model, they initially provide $150,000 to startups in return for a 7% equity stake, with additional financing possible.
  • The odds: Altman acknowledges that the chances of success are low, but while the ideas identified are very difficult, they do not seem "prevented by the laws of physics."

The four approaches identified by YC have generally not gotten as much prior attention as other CO2 removal technologies, such as direct air capture and bio-energy with carbon capture and storage.

What they're saying: Noah Deich, executive director of the group Carbon180 (formerly the Center for Carbon Removal), offers a mix of praise and caution.

  • "This is very much outside of the mainstream of what carbon removal technologies are currently being developed," says Deich, whose group has focused on direct air capture, forest restoration and planting, and other methods.
  • He adds that diversity is good when it comes to exploring CO2 removal technologies.

But, but, but: Deich tells Axios that applying the venture capital model to large-scale strategies like those that YC is exploring bring risks of "externalities"" — harms and costs that aren’t borne by investors.

  • This means engagement with a wide group of researchers, communities and other stakeholders is key, he says. "It's important to have their voices heard from the beginning."

I asked Altman about whether the venture model is appropriate here. "I don’t think any private company should make the decision about what to deploy," he answers.

  • Instead, Altman says, the effort is about seeing whether private industry and researchers can find workable solutions, which would be followed by a wider "global debate" about whether to try and implement them.
  • While there are risks, he notes that "the path of doing nothing is high risk."

Between the lines: In a blog post yesterday, Altman notes that YC has funded clean energy companies and will continue doing so, but cites the UN report to argue that emissions-cutting is not enough.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

The mystery of coronavirus superspreaders

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A small percentage of people — called superspreaders — may be responsible for a large number of COVID-19 infections, research is starting to indicate.

Why it matters: While there's no method to detect who these people are before they infect others, there are ways to control behaviors that cause superspreading events — a key issue as states start to reopen and debate what types of events are OK.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 p.m. ET: 5,931,112 — Total deaths: 357,929 — Total recoveries — 2,388,172Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3 p.m. ET: 1,711,313 — Total deaths: 101,129 — Total recoveries: 391,508 — Total tested: 15,192,481Map.
  3. States: New York to allow private businesses to deny entry to customers without masks.
  4. Public health: Louisiana Sen. Cassidy wants more frequent testing of nursing home workers.
  5. Congress: Pelosi slams McConnell on stimulus delay — Sen. Tim Kaine and wife test positive for coronavirus antibodies.
  6. Tech: Twitter fact-checks Chinese official's claims that coronavirus originated in U.S.
  7. What should I do? When you can be around others after contracting the coronavirus — Traveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

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Updated 32 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Twitter fact-checks Chinese official's claims that coronavirus originated in U.S.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Twitter slapped a fact-check label on a pair of months-old tweets from a Chinese government spokesperson that falsely suggested that the coronavirus originated in the U.S. and was brought to Wuhan by the U.S. military, directing users to "get the facts about COVID-19."

Why it matters: The labels were added after criticism that Twitter had fact-checked tweets from President Trump about mail-in voting, but not other false claims from Chinese Communist Party officials and other U.S. adversaries.