A surge of startups is tackling cow burps and other climate issues

“There’s a real belief that we can scale at a pace more like a software company,” says Brown, who worked at a data startup before founding Alga Biosciences. (Its co-founders are both chemists.) Researchers have just started studying the effect of algae in cattle feed, but Brown’s startup plans to move much faster by commercially feeding its product to 15,000 cows by this fall.

That pace might appeal to investors, but the researchers warn that the science is moving slowly for a reason. Most cattle feed additives containing algae have not yet “proven claims to reduce emissions throughout the life cycle of beef production and in the meantime could lead to further encourage production beef,” says Matthew Hayek, assistant professor of environmental studies at NYU.

In an op-ed for WIRED, Hayek argued that such “tech quick fixes” help people off the hook due to climate guilt. Worse still, technologists may overestimate their impact, to the detriment of more impactful solutions. At the same time, Hayek says he has no problem with Alga Biosciences. “I’m glad all of these companies are looking for private investment and growth,” he says, rather than selling offsets in carbon markets.

Robert Stoner, deputy director for science and technology at the MIT Energy Initiative, agreed that it’s too early to see which of these latest climate tech ideas will have real impact. “The answer in each case as to their viability will come down to the usual things,” he says, which includes the determination of demand and the dedication of the team. “I’m not terribly optimistic about those specific ideas based on the limited information I see, but half the fun of startup startups is trying to make something out of them, so I don’t want to say a single discouraging word or about any of them.

These startups now have to convince the broader investment community that their ideas can be good business. In their demo day presentations, the founders highlighted the possibility that their startups could both reduce carbon emissions and make money doing it. But the mood in the room is very different from just a few years ago, when founders working on climate-tech startups were often told their ideas couldn’t make money or would be better off. as non-profit associations.

“Founders today are in a very lucky position,” says Alain Rodriguez, co-founder of SINAI Technologies, which makes carbon management software. SINAI went through Y Combinator in 2020, when there were only three climate tech companies in the mix, and far fewer investors looking to include climate in their portfolios. “People don’t wonder if there is a market anymore.”

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Teresa H. Sadler