If you’re a technologist and you want to translate your abilities to an early stage project with climate-positive implications, where would you go?
[Adapted from this original substack post from January 2022]
There is LOTS of amazing activity around new models for funding and doing science. For the fastest overview, I suggest you bookmark Sam Arbesman’s Overedge Catalog. The newest organizations are mostly focused on translational computer science and biotech, especially for those funding vehicles for the earliest stage of research. This creates focus and community around topics like AI and Longevity (both great topics), and new models for producing biomedical startups. But where is the funding for early stage science that produce positive environmental impact?
From my experience, it seems that while speculative/ambitious science is being supported by new capital sources in many areas, early stage “climate-positive” efforts still seem to be stuck in older, slower models of funding. I’m writing this post to ask the community for input, and can share my own journey to explain my perspective. If I’m missing anything please comment here or ping me on Twitter
It was the fourth year of my PhD at the interface of synbio and neurotechnology when I first gave even the slightest consideration to working on climate tech. Bluntly, I’d learned to ignore the hyperbolic rhetoric and photos of dead polar bears: it was all positioned as hopeless or purely political, plus I had my own ambitions and career to think about. But being exposed to the domain of carbon capture technology in 2018 by my friend Sarah Sclarsic was a gateway drug of sorts: it re-framed “climate” as a set of technological challenges, and tech challenges is what I do. So where do I start?
It’s both a cliche and truism in science that asking the right question is the most important thing you will do. Personally, I’ve observed the route to the right question is itself a series of trying things, just like an testing any other hypothesis. So under the context of a class project, I did a deep dive on how I, as a former software entrepreneur, would professionally evaluate the space of carbon capture. That 2019 report is here, and I was searching for order-of-magnitude areas for improvement that might make carbon capture either sufficiently profitable to grow as a startup or radically scalable to immediately matter on the global scale. (Aside: if you want to go deep on carbon capture, the CDRPrimer is an excellent starting point). As I saw the space of carbon capture startups proliferate rapidly (Airminers has a great running list of carbon capture companies), I decided to focus toward the other extreme: searching for the largest capacity carbon capture approaches.
The two biggest global levers we have to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is through the ocean (eg, alkalinity enhancement) or rock weathering. If you focus purely on the drawdown potential and disregard a need to produce a marketable good, the theoretical annual carbon capture capacity from the ocean and the rocks is many gigatons per year, which is the scale that humanity will need by 2030. At this point, we now had developed a nucleus of bioengineers working together, and collectively we chose to focus on rock weathering because it felt the most addressable with our skill sets. We know microbes can eat rocks, how might we harness nature’s methods toward a 1000x speed up the natural rock weathering process?
To really approach the challenge of microbially-enhanced rock weathering, we knew as a team we needed both the idea and the funding to let us pursue that idea. Paul Reginato and I were the two grad students working most on this exploration. We were lucky to be mentored by Professors Ed Boyden and George Church who had built high-profile labs capable of allowing their graduate students to freely pursue such ambitious yet orthogonal goals to the lab’s prior body of work. And as we were still searching the surface of approaches, the MIT Climate Grand Challenge (CGC) was announced.
In my opinion, the MIT CGC was the most under-appreciated funding innovation of the past two years. As has been well documented by several other sources, there has been a LOT of funding innovations for science recently, and this is all very good. For example, Fast Grants rightfully received a lot of attention for their simple model for speed and success at encouraging ambitious science projects. I think the CGC got less attention because it was MIT-specific, and admittedly, it’s still too early to tell if the model was a success. The CGC design was $100k for 2-page letters of intent to fund the production of a 25-page white paper. In principle, this white paper would then be used by the MIT Development Office to fundraise for the university and to then support the execution of the ideas in that white paper. But from our experience as recipients of this support, it was much more: it was a catalyst to meet many highly relevant researchers.
To mechanistically study the conversion of silicates to carbonates (rock weathering), we needed to collaborate with chemists and geologists. One of the good design aspects of the CGC was a series of events in which accepted LoIs were presented in short video lectures. I went to the majority of these lecture series, and reached out to all the professors that were doing adjacent projects. This turned into friendships and collaborations with Admir Masic (Civil Engineering), Yogesh Surendranath (Chemistry), Matej Pec (Geology) and Loren Looger (UCSD/HHMI Bioengineering) and many others. I am confident to say that I don’t think we all would have connected if it were not for the forcing function of the white paper: it was both financial freedom to experiment and an expectation of a final deliverable. Furthermore, the money and the deadline of a deliverable was the nudge for me make space in my schedule of other PhD commitments and start getting some intuition of what it means to convert silicates to carbonates.
Exploring simple chemical and biological additions to ground olivine and observing the formation of carbonates
My experiences at the end of graduate school have made me deeply curious about the onramp for people like me to translate their abilities into climate-positive efforts. From my perspective, the ideal catalyst would have the following features:
Financial security: Let my creativity be the limiting factor to the experiments, and for my salary to be covered to give me the time to think clearly. As a semi-arbitrary number, I’d posit that $100k is the minimal amount to fund 1-3 people and their experiments.
Encourage ambitious, early science: Fund me at the idea stage, before I have a publishable result or an established record in the field. Talk to any scientist about applying for NIH/NSF funding and you’ll hear a snarky quip to the tune of “they’ll fund me for what I’ve already done.”
Team building and community membership: Break me out of my own head, let me build and fund my own team for the short period it takes to test the earliest stages of an idea. Fellowships are a leading model for early stage science for good reason, but one limiting factor is that they only support one person. Ideally, the other people supported by the catalyst would be great candidate teammates or at least help me grow my collaborator network.
Soft guidance toward the most direct path to impact: Help me confirm that I am working on the right problem from the right angle. There is a productive tension in science, especially climate, between “bottom-up” and “top-down” efforts. Top-down efforts are informed by first principles and roadmapping-based exercises to break a big problem into actionable chunks that can be orchestrated amongst practitioners. In contrast, bottom-up ideas come directly from the practitioners who have their own perspective and informed ideas. And while I think the majority of breakthroughs may well be accomplished from top-down science (note: top-down efforts are not without their own failure modes), it would be hubristic to think that all good ideas could be covered by a roadmap. One could make an argument that the true paradigm changers could not be covered by a top-down effort by definition. In practice, all efforts will sit somewhere on the spectrum of bottom-up vs top-down: even bottom-up efforts would still require some scaffold of ideas, relevant efforts and prior knowledge. Mentors and community must be there to reverse engineer the maximum possible impact of an idea.
So with these desired features in mind, what are the funding opportunities that exist for early stage ideas by early stage researchers? Ignoring university-specific funds (which unless you’re MIT, Harvard or Stanford are probably well under $100k), the options are listed below. Here is a spreadsheet of the granting agencies that support early stage research to earlier career scientists. Please add in rows if I’m missing anything or incorrect (I will do my best to update this screenshot as input comes in).
Early-stage funding opportunities around climate technology that I’m aware of. I include some tech-focused accelerators for reference, even though the focus of this essay is the stage of development far before the startup phase.
The answer that I currently arrive at is that there is not much at the moment, especially for the realm of a bioengineering → climate translation (note that Climate Change AI did grants in 2021 for computer science → climate projects). Contrast this to the Impetus Grants or Altos Labs for Longevity. It feels like there is a gap especially for the exponentially growing reach and impact of biotechnology.
This means the main path for a graduating PhD student to work on early stage science efforts is to moonlight during their PhD, apply for a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, find a creative+established PI who supports novel ideas or work at a well-capitalized company that is doing R&D in a topic that excites you (eg, Ginkgo spun out Allonia to address pollution). Is this optimal? Are there domains that have done this better that we can learn from?