New Zealand is well-placed to become a world leader in climate response, say participants in an accelerator programme helping companies tackle climate change head-on.
“There is no one silver bullet for climate change,” says Ben Hamm Conard. “There’s not one single thing that’s going to fix the problems that we have… [But] within the sector of innovation, entrepreneurship and startups, we’d like to be doing our part to push that change forward.”
Conard is the startup programme manager at Creative HQ, which has just selected its cohort for the second ever Climate Response Accelerator programme. Partly funded by the Ministry for the Environment, the programme will run over 12 weeks, during which 10 teams will be provided with resources, training and $20k of equity-free funding to speed up their growth. The programme is aimed at companies who are “tackling climate change head-on”, Conard says.
The programme began on April 7, just days after the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that found the world had all but run out of time to reduce its emissions. The report found that emissions needed to peak by 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by around half by 2030 to meet the 1.5°C warming limit set by the Glasgow climate pact at COP26. The world also has to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 to avoid warming above the target. Currently, scientists estimate that the average global temperature has risen by 1.0°C since pre-industrial levels, and we’ve already begun feeling those impacts in the form of sea-level rises, ocean acidification, and increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather patterns.
To tackle the issue, countries at COP26 agreed that finance must be put toward both climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation. That means strategies to combat our existing emissions, and strategies for transitioning into a permanent net carbon-zero economy. The startups selected for the 2022 Climate Response Accelerator, which has the theme of circular economies, encompass both strategies.
At the adaptation end of the fight against climate change is Alimentary Systems. Founder and commercial director Matthew Jackson believes New Zealand could be a world leader in climate response given the right investment. His company aims to “create value from waste” by mixing and treating waste streams to create a source of clean energy. The integrated waste treatment plant mixes together agricultural waste, human waste and green waste, consolidating their treatment process. The resulting product undergoes anaerobic digestion, where microbes process the waste and convert it into “fossil-free organic fertiliser” as well as methane, which can be captured and used as a source of energy.
“It’s effectively a perpetual energy system and an infinite carbon loop,” says Jackson. That might sound complicated, but the integrated waste treatment plant is essentially a way of recycling waste products into energy and fertiliser that could transition our economy away from its reliance on fossil fuels. The best part? Jackson’s waste plant would generate its own power, making it zero waste, zero emissions and energy neutral. There are other benefits too. Under our current system, Jackson notes that waste is often dealt with separately, which means separate systems and separate costs. But by consolidating agricultural, human and green waste, “you consolidate the amount of land required [and] you’re not running two sets of operations”.
“We need to start changing the built environment now,” urges Jackson. “We have to stop building based on the linear model and start building based on the circular… we can create a different type of economy.”
Fellow programme participants ARCubed are working on a different approach to a circular economy. Their company straddles the line between adaptation and mitigation of climate change by focusing on improving the outcomes for existing recycling systems. Currently, only an estimated 28% of waste is recycled in New Zealand, and part of the problem is recycling contamination. That involves the wrong materials being present in recycling streams, for example broken glass or refuse in plastic recycling bins.
ARCubed CEO and co-founder Carl Lickford says contaminated recycling often “just gets dumped, because it’s just too difficult to process”. To help the situation, ARCubed has developed One Bin, which uses machine learning to identify recyclable materials and sort them into the correct stream at the source. They envision One Bin being deployed in public spaces, where Lickford says the current recycling problem is “shocking”. Through their research, ARCubed found that the contents of public recycling bins are often thrown directly into the landfill due to the level of contamination. “They’re not even sorting [the rubbish], because the contamination is so high nobody will actually take it… there’s a lot of wasted effort with existing public recycling bins,” says Lickford.
The team of five, who met at Waikato University, wanted to use the technology being developed in their department to tackle real-world problems. In addition to One Bin’s ability to identify and sort refuse, ARCubed also wants One Bin to have an educational component, so users can be aware of what’s recyclable in their jurisdictions. It could be another way to reduce recycling contamination, and increase New Zealand’s recycling rates.
Dr Mohammed Hedayati, a machine learning and computer vision scientist and another co-founder of ARCubed, says the software could become extremely accurate in the future. “We can extend to any kind of product and recycling,” he says. Currently, the team is focusing on identifying and nailing its market to best customise One Bin’s capacities.
On the climate change mitigation end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Capture6 is working on carbon sequestration – a process that removes CO2 directly from the atmosphere and stores it. “The climate crisis is today,” says co-founder and president Luke Shors, whose aim for Capture6 is to fight climate change using existing technology deployed at a scale that could make a meaningful dent in our current emissions. What makes Capture6 different from other carbon sequestration companies is that their process would also combat ocean acidification by producing calcium carbonate, an alkaline compound, which would be deposited back into the ocean.
Like Jackson, Shors believes New Zealand is “a leader in the [climate response] space”, and is “excited about commercialising the technology in New Zealand”. Shors admits there may be concerns with pumping calcium carbonate into the ocean, but says Capture6 is in dialogue with policy experts to determine how the technology could be safely deployed.
Alimentary Systems, ARCubed and Capture6 are just three of 10 teams participating in the 2022 Climate Response Accelerator at CreativeHQ, which Conard describes as more of a “condensed period of time where they’re getting lots and lots of support.” That includes mentorship from former founders, industry experts and other players in the ecosystem, as well as dedicated coaching from Creative HQ.
Each of the teams is contributing to the climate change response in a unique way, which Shors notes means that “there’s a lot of potential synergy in the cohort … no one has all the strengths, so finding others that can give us advice or support is always welcome.”
Similarly, Lickford says they’re “really looking forward to being with some like minded people”, and Jackson says he’s most excited about talking to other founders and “working with a group of people that are kind of heading in the same direction”.
Although business is usually thought of as a competition, each of the teams express a vested interest in seeing others succeed, which they attribute to the sheer size of the climate problem.
“I hope there are many, many winners in this space,” says Shors.
“I don’t think there’s any more important work to be doing at the moment,” says Jackson.
“We want to take care of the world,” agrees Lickford. “We only get the one planet.”
But although we only have one planet, there’s no single solution to the scale of the climate crisis. That’s why Conard believes in the work they’re supporting at Creative HQ.
“My hope for [the Climate Response Accelerator] would be that by seeing the teams that are working on these problems, it encourages other people at any stage of their career [to realise] there are things that we can do to actually help mitigate and address the effects of climate change.”