"Net zero" is repeatedly cited as the major goal in addressing the climate crisis. There are many approaches to pulling greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, with Direct Air Capture probably the biggest and best known. But start-ups have developed many other options. Like Ucaneo from Berlin, which works with a catalytic membrane. Sure enough our //next columnist Markus Sekulla wanted to find out more.
Markus: Hi Florian, glad to have a chat with you today about your start-up Ucaneo. Please give us the intro: Who are you, what does Ucaneo do, how many people work there and where are your people based?
Florian: Hi Markus, it is great to meet you. I am Florian, Co-Founder and CEO of Ucaneo. At Ucaneo we are developing the world's first Direct Capture technology based on the power of enzymes and biology with the mission to reverse climate change! We are currently a team of 6 people from different countries and disciplines across molecular biology, hardware engineering, material science and process engineering. We are all based in Berlin at our own office and laboratory.
Markus: Could you describe the moment when you knew that the idea is that great that you need to become an entrepreneur / found a company?
Florian: For Carla, my technical co-founder, and me it was clear we want to fight climate change leveraging both of our backgrounds. I myself have built several companies in AI, robotics & sustainability during my time at McKinsey, while Carla brings a lot of expertise in biology and data science combined with the experience of how to translate very scientific knowledge into products. We talked to more than 50 experts from all around the world, developing our technological concept. When we tried it out in our lab and were able in just 2 months to prove it works on a molecular level exceeding our expectations we decided to start a company together. Shortly later we incorporated a GmbH with our private savings.
Markus: Which specific problem are you solving and how?
Florian: To meet the world’s net zero climate targets humanity has to capture billions of tons of CO2 directly from the air. However, to do that is very difficult as the CO2 concentration is quite low. Nature based solutions like planting trees are important but limited in their permanence and required land use. Chemical engineered solutions, like current Direct Air Capture technologies, are expensive and hard to scale. Their mechanism works similar to a sponge, which sucks out all the CO2 from the air. For the sponge to release the captured CO2 again, it requires high temperatures and vacuum which is energy intense.
Ucaneo’s approach does not contain a sponge, but instead leverages a catalytic membrane. This is the world’s first biochemical engineered Direct Air Capture technology. We don't bind the CO2 in the atmosphere but concentrate it through concentration gradients through the membrane. This allows us to significantly save energy. e.g. reducing the reaction temperature to room temperature and therefore reducing the cost. We envision to build decentralized container size units, which allow for easy scale up. Those have the estimated capacity to capture around the same amount of CO2 on 15m2 as 35,000 trees.
Markus: Will it be possible in the future to capture enough carbon to match or offset the amount we produce?
Florian: In short, that depends on the amount of carbon we emit. To reach net zero in the future, DAC will be an essential pillar and I believe this will be possible with new innovative solutions. At this point in time, there is no single solution to climate change - we need all of them. First priority is to reduce the CO2 emissions we emit. According to IPCC and other leading climate experts in the world we will need Direct Air Capture and other carbon dioxide removal technologies to remove legacy CO2 and reach net zero. Also there still will be very hard to abate sectors like aviation.
Markus: For someone who works in the climate crisis solution field, what do you think can we as individuals and communities do to save the planet and what future challenges do we need to tackle now?
Florian: The concept of DAC or carbon removal in general is not to just keep on emitting and it will be fixed. The idea and need for DAC or carbon removal is to undo emissions from the past, emissions that we cannot avoid anymore. Therefore it is absolutely important to reduce emissions now. Of course everyone can save emissions through their own actions. But voicing those needs and opinions is also important to push emission reductions upwards on the agenda of politicians and industry leaders to create an even larger leverage.
One of the biggest CO2 emissions globally derives from households. Everyone can work on their energy consumption, i.d. heating etc. or the food we eat. As communities we need to invest more into renewable energy and new carbon removal technologies, to being able to scale those up right in time.
Markus: Everyone talks about the great resignation and how difficult it is to find people. Does a purpose driven startup like Ucaneo also have to face this problem?
Florian: Finding good people is really hard, especially if you are looking for people with a scientific and an entrepreneurial mindset - people that challenge the status quo but also find pragmatic solutions that work. After finding this talent, it is also about listening to what they want and need to thrive. A younger startup often cannot pay crazy amounts in salary, but offers flexibility to thrive in a personalized routine and career path. The fact that besides enjoying your work, it also has a massive impact, is definitely a great bonus!
Luckily, we did not have too many difficulties so far, as we could convince our employees with our purpose driven mission, the freedom and flexibility to work, our team but also a fair payment and nice perks. I think many good people are going into climate tech which makes it easier, but the overall package still needs to work out.
Markus: What are the biggest problems startups in the field of Sustainability / Sustainable Tech are facing?
Florian: The biggest problems right now are funding and infrastructure. The development of hardware and biotech is very capital intensive. You often move along the line of science and engineering risk. VCs generally do not fund pure science projects. However, science is the prerequisite for breakthrough innovation. Grants and more public funding is key to allow smaller companies to tackle major science risks, but come with huge bureaucratic work and long timelines/planning, which is often not possible in startups. Infrastructure like laboratory space in Berlin is also scarce, which makes it not easier.
Markus: What is your most important milestone in 2023?
Florian: Moving from lab to the machine - building a functional prototype showcasing our technology works and has potential for scale up.
As part of the Climate-KIC accelerator, Munich Re and ERGO are currently supporting five start-ups active in the field of carbon removal, where they are making an important contribution to combating global warming. In a series of interviews with //next columnist Markus Sekulla, we introduce the five young companies with big ambitions: NeoCarbon, Reverse Carbon, Silicate, Treeconomy and Ucaneo Biotech.
Wer sich die Unternehmen schon einmal anschauen möchte – hier geht's zu den Websites:
Informationen zum ClimAccelerator gibt es hier:
Text: Markus Sekulla
Here you will find the German version of this article: Ucaneo: „Wir kehren den Klimawandel durch Biotechnologie um“