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The Innovators

Kiverdi CEO Lisa Dyson seeks to extract value from CO2

This 12-part series highlights women-led ventures in the green economy.

The IPCC has spoken: One decade remains to prevent the worse impacts of climate change. The 2018 IPCC report finds that after achieving Paris Agreement-level greenhouse gas reductions by 2050, outstanding emissions need to be balanced by removing carbon dioxide from the air. A major stumbling blocks to doing so is the zero-to-nothing value of CO2.

If the market does not have a value for CO2, then it becomes difficult to achieve the deep decarbonization required. In situations like this, turning to human experience interacting with the universe seems a wise thing to do. And so did Lisa Dyson, co-founder and CEO of Kiverdi.

Dyson was raised in an entrepreneurial family — her dad was president and chief executive of a chain of over 55 hair salons. She had the entrepreneur gene and also a passion for science, eventually studying string theory and plasma physics. While a management consultant, Dyson worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Witnessing the devastation caused by severe weather triggered a sense of social and environmental responsibility in her work. From then on, she sought to combine the many elements that comprised her existence — entrepreneurship, core science and sustainable development — by shifting focus to climate change.

Dyson and Kiverdi co-founder John Reed, a fellow MIT PhD alum, started talking about how to concretely reduce global warming. "We thought about how we could incentivize companies to have a role in solving climate change," Dyson said. She and Reed read through NASA technical reports written in the 1960s and '70s. These reports discussed the need to recycle CO2 while astronauts were cruising through the cosmos aboard spacecraft. 

Dyson and Reed thought, "What if we developed a technology that would enable us to profitably recycle carbon dioxide into valuable products here on Earth?"

A major stumbling block to [achieving Paris Agreement goals] is the zero-to-nothing value of CO2.
They entered and placed in business plan competitions and received a lot of investor interest. To kickstart the effort, the pair rented lab space from the National Institutes of Health-funded company, MandalMed, which had started an incubator called Bioscience Laboratories. It was there that Dyson and Reed developed some of the underlying intellectual property for Kiverdi under the name SequesCO.

In 2011, Kiverdi started to raise institutional capital for more advanced research, development and demonstration. Kiverdi experienced many pivots, determining the best feedstocks, products and company partnerships. Fast-forward seven years later, Dyson says she is looking forward to entering the phase of scaling up, demonstration and product production.

Kiverdi uses a bioreactor, similar to the device used to brew beer, to combine CO2 with special microbes called hydrogenotrophs, which derive energy from renewable electricity or biomass. Kiverdi calls these hydrogenotrophs "nature's super charged carbon recyclers" because they transform CO2 into protein, high-valued oils, nutrients and bio-based products that can be used in a wide range of consumer and industrial applications. With over 50 pending or granted patents, Kiverdi’s key differentiator is that its process feeds gases to microbes. Many bioprocesses can convert sugar into bio-based products, but converting gases into these same products had been rare before Kiverdi arrived.

The source of the carbon used by Kiverdi varies from project to project and is usually one of two kinds: captured from an energy or industrial process or derived from biomass material in a closed-loop recycling process. One project in Canada captures carbon from a natural gas power plant. In partnership with CO2 Solutions, which has a carbon-scrubbing technology, Kiverdi will create a number of products, including fish feed.

Another project is with Fater, a Proctor & Gamble and Angelini Group joint venture, which is looking to minimize its environmental footprint. Fater has developed innovations to make one of its product lines, disposable diapers, fully recyclable. In partnership with Fater, Kiverdi is able to convert the cellulose and plastic from used, sterilized diapers into advanced materials for plant nutrition, packaging and medical applications.

One of the most promising products from Kiverdi’s technology is a palm oil equivalent. Palm oil extraction is a leading cause of deforestation and thus climate change. Expected to reach $88 billion by 2022, the palm oil industry sources about 85 percent of its oil from Malaysian and Indonesian trees, where deforestation and burning on peatland releases mass amounts of CO2 and endangers species such as the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan.

Kiverdi is one of the few startups whose success is inextricably linked to inroads in solving climate change.
Here is where we are headed: 10 billion homo sapiens by 2050, 11 billion by 2100, all with a growing demand for protein-rich diets. Today’s agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than transportation (including all of our cars, trucks and planes). The emissions from one cow are comparable to the emissions of one internal combustion engine car. Finding a way to simultaneously suck carbon out of the atmosphere and provide for a fast growing, protein-hungry population is thus imperative.

Kiverdi is headquartered in Hayward, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, with some staff remotely located in states such as Nevada and New York. The team has a range of skills, from technical expertise in microbiology, fermentation and process engineering, to business operations expertise in accounting, patent law, business development and human resources. Kiverdi’s business model makes local manufacturing viable and enables green manufacturing job creation.

Kiverdi has been able to grow its business and talent with both non-dilutive grants and debt and equity sources. To date, Kiverdi has received three U.S. Department of Energy grants, two state-level R&D grants from the California Energy Commission and the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and through partnerships, Canadian and European grants. In addition to the precious non-dilutive funding, early stage capital has come from Kapor Capital, Primera Capital and various angels and family offices.

Kiverdi is actively working with partners to bring the recycled CO2 products to market. One of its biggest opportunities is working with early adopters — those with an incentive to become a partner along the value chain. Kiverdi continues to add staff to scout the best opportunities. And these opportunities lie at the intersection of consumer demand for recycled CO2 products — responsible businesses that would, for example, prefer to use sustainable palm oil from Kiverdi than newly deforested peat-based palm oil, and government incentives that subsidize captured CO2 (such as 45Q in the United States). 

Dyson describes Kiverdi’s company culture as resourceful and collaborative, "filled with a constant curiosity and eagerness to learn," with her hands-off leadership style and problem-solving focus at the helm.

Kiverdi is one of the few startups whose success is inextricably linked to inroads in solving climate change. And while "free-from" products such as the ones made by Kiverdi — along the lines of gluten-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, non-GMO products — are in demand, the "made from captured CO2" value chain has yet to be established. It will be exciting to see how Kiverdi deploys its process as a platform technology to transform carbon to value, in the crucial decade ahead.

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