Arvind co-leads Mayfield’s engineering biology practice and is founder and venture advisor at IndieBio. He was the first investor in breakout bio companies such as Geltor, Synthex, Prime Roots, NotCo, Prellis, New Culture, DNA Lite and Memphis Meats.
Climate in the last decade has been unprecedented in many ways, none of them good.
Wildfires in California have consumed entire towns; thousands of miles away, New Yorkers inhale the ashes. Across Europe and Japan, flash floods wreak widespread devastation. We all see the videos on YouTube and CNN. And we shrug.
The recently released 6th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluded that human-created climate change is taking place faster than we thought, calling it a “code-red alert.” At just 2 degrees warmer than today, one estimate predicts more than 300,000,000 climate-related deaths globally by 2100. And that’s the optimistic estimate. Global warming is overwhelming and feels impossible to fix. What the hell can we do?
Like many of you, I am an optimist. Humanity has come to the limits of nature many times in the past, and has overcome them with technology. We have always adapted ourselves to our environment; changing our technology and behavior due to environmental change is part of our history.
Regulation will help incentivize corporations to clean up, but only technology can solve the intractable problem of sustainably giving us what we desire. Thoughtless consumption brought us climate change, but it is also true that mindful consumption can get us out of it.
How do we use capitalism to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions worldwide? Follow the carbon. That leads us to the three main bottlenecks on the road to net-zero carbon emissions.
What follows is necessarily a high-level overview of huge and complex industries. I’ve purposely left out granular details so we could address the overarching issues.
Electrification: 36 gigatons CO2 emitted
TAM: $7 trillion
Global carbon usage is highest in energy production as we burn coal, oil and natural gas to power our cars, cities and industry (yes, coal is still mined and burned in 2021). That’s a whopping 36 gigatons of CO2 emissions per year. Why do we still burn coal? It’s cheap, on-demand, universal, portable, an order of magnitude more efficient than lithium-ion batteries, and much safer.
But it needs to be eliminated, very soon.
The IPCC report found that 89% of global CO2 emissions come from fossil fuels. Further, it tells us we must cut these emissions in half over the next decade or risk a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures.
Currently, wind and solar cannot produce electricity 100% of the time; generated energy must be stored rather than just dumped if unused, as it is done today. There are many ways of producing clean energy today, including nuclear, tidal, hydroelectric, geothermal and other means. Fusion is advancing every year.
Civilization was born alongside the sheep and cow, but 10,000 years later, the sheep, cow and pig are killing us. They emit 10% of global greenhouse gases, and global demand for meat is skyrocketing.
We will need more than double today’s clean energy output to service growing demand. But until we can store this energy and use it in cars, boats, airplanes and more, clean energy production will not eliminate the need for oil and coal. Energy storage is the main bottleneck for a global electric economy. We need bigger, safer and cleaner batteries that can be used everywhere from the grid to our cars to our homes, and keep the lights on when we need them most.
You and I won’t be buying these batteries, but they will power everything we do buy. From cars to the cargo ships that deliver them to the airplanes that carry us, they will all eventually be electric. Boeing just ordered 100 electric planes from Heart Aerospace, in which it also invested. The world’s first electric cargo ship, the Yara Birkeland, built by Marin Teknikk, is scheduled to have its maiden voyage soon.
There are no fewer than a dozen electric aircraft companies and six dozen electric vehicle companies. But the bottleneck for these efforts to scale and replace all fossil fuel planes, ships and cars with equivalent performance is a humble battery capable of delivering sustained, high power output over a long period of time. Without that fundamental advancement, these companies will stay in the conceptual stage for a long time.
Unfortunately, lithium-based battery technology still only has one-tenth the maximum energy density of gasoline (which is around 50 megajoules per kilogram). It isn’t enough. The closest we can get with lithium-ion technology is the lithium-air battery, which has a theoretical energy density of 40 megajoules per kilogram, but new electrolytes need to be invented for it to work. Like Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier to usher in the supersonic era, we need to break through this density barrier to power our green future.
Recent studies have demonstrated that melanin, our skin pigment, has also shown promise as a potent cathode that can make rechargeable sodium batteries a possibility. This would enable large-scale “salt” batteries that can be used to create a safe and clean grid storage solution. Researchers have also used viruses to create nanolayers of different elements to make higher-performance cathodes. Other lines of research have shown that batteries driven by enzymatic catalysts can potentially use sugar water to slowly charge your car or house with bio-electricity. None of the solutions above are within a decade to market; all are in the research stage.
The winners of the electrification wars will aggregate these technologies across industries and provide consumers with a seamless, wonderful experience. From fast wireless charging of electronics and vehicles to self-adapting national electrical grids, an electrified world will be quieter, efficient and clean. I am excited about the prospect of living in a fully electric world.
Rematerialization: 10.2 gigatons emitted
TAM: $12 trillion
Every object in the room you’re sitting in was made unsustainably and reeks of carbon emissions. The cement floor, sofa, dining table, desk, refrigerator, sink, chairs, even the walls contribute to climate change. Consumers have no choice; they can’t buy green, and we need to change this.
Durable goods and our built environment alone account for more than 10.2 gigatons of CO2 emissions yearly, or nearly one-third of total emissions. The heights of dirty industry need to be toppled and rebuilt from scratch with a new goal in mind: Sustainable production for hundreds of years to come.
Global cement production emits nearly 2.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. There are dozens of green cement companies now trying various approaches to eliminating CO2 emissions from cement and concrete. At IndieBio, I invested in Carbix, a company that takes CO2 emissions and uses them to make olivine cement. They have made a few bricks and are years from the market.
The main barrier for most green cement formulators is proving equivalent structural performance. Getting to scale is expensive. However, a few companies promising greener concrete are coming to market in the next few years.
Making steel and aluminum is energy-intensive. In fact, aluminum is referred to by many commodity traders as “energy in solid form.” Powering our foundries with clean energy and reducing their carbon usage will help eliminate 8% of emissions.
Trees are our biggest carbon sinks. They suck in CO2 from the air and exhale the oxygen we breathe. So why do we still cut them down?
Hopefully, soon we won’t have to. Companies are using flax and other natural fibers to create bio-composites that are stiffer than steel and lighter than wood, or developing sustainable bamboo for exterior building panels. Others are experimenting with mushroom mycelium to grow entire buildings.
Leather and fabrics
Cows contribute 7.1 gigatons of CO2 per year to global warming, a full 14.5% of the total. We don’t just eat them, we use their skin a lot. Leather is everywhere, from shoes and couches to purses and clothing. We need to replace this material if we are to eliminate cows from our supply chain.
Fortunately, a dozen companies are making headway into eliminating plastic and leather from fashion. All are finding tremendous traction with consumer companies looking to provide their consumers with vegan and sustainable products.
Fabrics like polyester are made of petrochemicals. Fermentation technologies excel at making oils from sugar water by using algae or yeast as a factory. Fermentation is scalable and exists today, while a newer technology called cell-free synthesis is being applied to these same problems. We can expect new green fabrics in the next five years.
Break down oil and you get a list of unpronounceable names that make much of our world. These chemicals are used in engines, antifreeze, cosmetics and even foods. To eliminate any need for oil, these products must be replaced through fermentation, which converts sugar into chemicals.
The sugar can come from corn or even waste CO2 in chimneys. Cells don’t have to be alive either, as cell-free synthesis allows the enzymes themselves to do the work. A huge number of companies have been started to remake all these chemicals through varieties of fermentation and synthesis.
Rematerializing our planets with sustainable, carbon-neutral sources can remove up to 10 gigatons of emissions from our economy. Our houses and everything inside them will eventually become carbon-neutral through rematerialization. I am excited about breaking this bottleneck to progress because it naturally leads to better products for everyone.
Food: 3.6 gigatons C02 emitted
TAM: $10 trillion
The first slide of a presentation I gave to explain the new food revolution depicted cavemen with spears being mauled by a giant prehistoric bear. The point? Protein is important enough to die for. As we transitioned from hunting to farming, our society reorganized around cities and the division of labor.
Civilization was born alongside the sheep and cow, but 10,000 years later, the sheep, cow and pig are killing us. They emit 10% of global greenhouse gases, and global demand for meat is skyrocketing. Over the past six years at IndieBio, I’ve invested in Clara Foods, Geltor, Memphis Meats (now Upside Foods), NotCo,and many others to reinvent agriculture through fermentation, plant-based formulations and cell-based culture.
These startups reinvented familiar foods like burgers, mayonnaise, popcorn shrimp, egg whites, poke bowls, sausages and chicken wings. As affluent societies began eating more processed foods, foods became products: Cows became burgers, pigs became bacon and chickens are now nuggets. A legion of food-as-product companies have followed in their footsteps and there are entire conferences dedicated to them. “Food is hot” is an understatement in Silicon Valley.
Having been a part of the food revolution from its earliest days, I am struck by the magnitude of these revolutions once they really get going. I am also wary of revolutions that stall. Cell-based foods should be on the market next year and consumers will get to decide for themselves if the revolution is for them. So the final shape and form of the world once the revolutions roll through society and become the new normal is not easy to predict.
I am a fan of history, so I look into the past to see where we are going next. My mother’s recipe for curry chicken is a good place to start. It calls for chicken thighs with the bone in, chopped. If I want to make a low-carbon, animal-free version of that recipe, I’d have to use something other than chicken, but what? Just’s cell-based chicken nuggets? No, breaded chicken nuggets won’t work, nor would soy alternatives. Beyond Curry? My mom wouldn’t approve.
Biofarming real food
For agriculture to be reinvented for everyone, not just the 1%, we must make food. Real, natural food. Steaks, chicken breasts and thighs, bone-in meats and spare ribs. Not a processed version of these products, but ingredients to make whole-food dishes.
Food 3.0 is biofarming. Biofarming will have to solve for taste and wholesome nutrition. Delicious foods with no processing other than mom’s recipe. Regenerative agriculture will enable carbon-neutral vegetables and plants if we can help farmers get their yields high enough to turn a profit while a field is fallow for a season. Numerous technologies are helping to achieve this.
We aren’t F’d yet
Bloomberg recently reported that there have been over 5 million deaths a year globally from climate change-related events from 2009 to 2019. That’s 1 in 10 deaths on the planet. Since we do not track this statistic (we track heat stroke, drowning, landslide, suicide, and the things that directly kill us), nor other effects like people not having children and extreme anxiety, it is impossible to know the true magnitude of misery climate change will bring. How far will we let this go before we all act? How many more will have to die?
The new normal doesn’t need to be this way. Scientists can choose to apply their work to solve the paradox of carbon and production. Investors can choose to put money into companies rebuilding our world to be gentle and green. And entrepreneurs can choose to build companies that reshape our carbon economy for the greatest opportunity in history. The above road map represents the ability to erase nearly all carbon emissions by humanity.
We are far from doomed. Together, we will all build and we will all fight for our future.